Putting coffee grounds into shoes and luxury watch straps isn't sustainable—it's a distraction.
Coffee produces a lot of waste. Whether byproducts from the green processing at origin or used grounds after brewing, there’s always organic matter left over. Some of this waste goes into mulch or fertilizer on the farm or into compost heaps around the world. But a lot more goes to landfill, where it releases potent greenhouse gases like methane.
Diverting coffee waste from landfill and turning it into usable products is a growing subsector of the industry. There are countless companies around the world looking to utilize the fruit (for cascara tea), husks (for reusable cups) or coffee grounds (for alternative fuels and other products).
Although many of these companies are small startups genuinely trying to do good, this upcycled coffee waste trend is also ripe for exploitation by large corporations looking to burnish their eco credentials.
Welcome to the world of upcycled coffeewashing.
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Paper or Plastic?
To begin, let’s review: coffeewashing is when coffee companies deceive or mislead the public about the positive social, economic and environmental impact of their products or actions. That’s the definition I came up with for a previous article about coffeewashing more generally, but it works for the purposes of this one too.
The goal of coffeewashing is to direct the consumer’s attention towards the small good deeds that big corporations do—often costing them very little—and away from the much larger harms. For example: JDE Peet’s recently announced that it would begin offering its instant coffee in paper packaging as a way to “create a more sustainable ecosystem in the soluble coffee market by incentivising the reuse of existing glass jars and tin formats.”
This is from a company so large that its annual carbon emissions are equal to that of entire countries.
Coffeewashing goes on all the time—I have a recurring section of my weekly news roundup dedicated to the subject—but it can still be tricky to spot. One of the ways companies achieve it is by producing “sustainable” products that they can point to as proof that they’re doing the right thing.
A Growing Problem
In 2022 farmers around the world produced more than 168 million 60 kilo bags of coffee. Processing the freshly-picked cherries into green coffee generates a lot of byproducts, and if not disposed of correctly this waste can contaminate soil and waterways.
Brewed coffee of course leaves behind spent grounds, which on a global level leads to an enormous amount of waste. In 2006 an estimated six million tons of ground coffee went to landfill, and in 2019 that number was conservatively put at more than 15 million tons.
As they decompose in landfill coffee grounds emit greenhouse gases including methane, which is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This means that all those spent grounds emit more than 28 million tons of CO2 equivalent (a measurement used to standardize the climate effects of various greenhouse gases) each year, or the same as burning nearly 11 million liters of diesel fuel.
All this to say that increasing coffee production and consumption—because they have to, because growth is the only thing that matters—will create more and more waste, adding to coffee’s already weighty carbon footprint.
Compounds & Chemicals
But coffee waste doesn’t have to go to landfill. Coffee grounds are full of compounds, chemicals, and oils that can be recycled and repurposed into something useful. Even before you think of the product implications, coffee waste is a great compost additive, and one study found that spreading leftover coffee pulp, a byproduct of coffee processing, on post-agricultural ground can supercharge tropical forest regeneration.
Then there are the hundreds of companies utilizing coffee waste in products ranging from shoes and reusable cups to skincare and food additives. Some of them are very successful—Huskee Cups, which include coffee husks in their reusable cups, are now found in cafes across the world (although they are still made primarily from plastic).
This article is not about those companies; this article is about the corporations that use the act of recycling coffee waste as an excuse to tout their sustainability bonafides and to deflect from their eco-transgressions.
A Vegetable Peeler?
Nespresso is very big. In 2022 it brought in $6.9 billion in revenue for its parent company Nestlé; according to the Guardian, 14 billion Nespresso pods are sold every year. It thus has the capacity to do a lot of good, and there’s no denying the impact that volume and money can have. There are coffee producers who have a better life because of the work Nespresso does at origin, although one of the reasons we know this is because Nespresso is constantly telling us about it in news releases, sponsored content, and advertisements.
Another way Nespresso likes to tout its sustainability credentials is through upcycling—the company is constantly releasing products containing used coffee grounds or post-pod aluminium. There’s the bicycle made from coffee pods, the shoes made with waste coffee, the Swiss Army Knife, and also the vegetable peeler for some reason.
Most recently it partnered with luxury watchmaker Hublot to market a $24,000 watch made with a small amount of recycled aluminium and coffee grounds. According to Daily Coffee News, the watch is made from the reused metal, of which 28% comes from Nespresso capsules, while the two strap options include either 4.2 or 5% recycled coffee grounds.
The watch “is the result of a collaboration between two iconic Swiss companies that share the same values: innovation, quality and sustainability,” according to Nespresso’s website. “This very special creation has once again redefined the way in which the coffee grounds and aluminium of your Nespresso capsules can be re-used.” But how much coffee is it really saving from landfill here?
The release generated a lot of positive press, most of which reported glowingly on the sustainability of the project. In fact all the company’s recycled products garner rave reviews for their positive impact—reporting on the coffee shoe release, Sustainability Magazine called Nespresso “an advocate of sustainability” and “a model organisation in terms of sustainable sourcing initiatives and waste management.”
There are other companies following a similar playbook: in 2019 Ford teamed up with McDonald’s to use coffee chaff—a byproduct of the roasting process—in the creation of bioplastics for car parts. It also received a lot of good press for this project (pages and pages, in fact) despite the fact that both companies are giant multinationals in two of the most-polluting industries on the planet.
And this, of course, is the point. Nespresso isn’t launching these products because they actually divert substantial waste from landfill, and McDonald’s and Ford know they’re not making a substantial impact with their recycling project: it’s all marketing.
The thing is, for something like coffee waste, there are solutions. The problem is that they are expensive, or difficult and unglamorous, and don’t result in easy marketing for big corporations.
Simply composting the grounds is one solution; another is to use them as ingredients in bricks or concrete. The carbon emissions savings are significant: one study found that, compared to landfill, composting coffee grounds reduced their emissions by 18% and incorporating them into bricks saved 76%. Another study found that using coffee waste in brick-making actually improved the performance of the finished bricks. Researchers had similar results with concrete: adding processed grounds to the mix, as a replacement for sand (a vital and depleting natural resource), can even make the resulting concrete nearly 30% stronger.
Biofuels are another option (although the emissions savings are less with these). Many businesses and researchers are looking to turn waste coffee into alternatives to diesel, while a British company called Bio-Bean had success turning coffee grounds into compressed coffee logs which it sold at supermarkets as an alternative to firewood. However, among other problems it had trouble sourcing enough coffee waste to meet demand and, after a fire at its facility, shut down in April 2023.
The big problem with recycling coffee waste is redirecting it from landfill in the first place. Coffee shops often lack the resources (or inclination) to separate and deal with their grounds, while millions of coffee drinkers worldwide produce waste in such small quantities that it is much easier to simply throw it in the trash.
Big chains with funds and centralized management would have an easier time, and coffee roasters could include postage-paid envelopes with their orders for customers to collect and ship waste back to them (Nespresso sort of does this already with the Podback aluminium system, but it’s clearly not that effective seeing as how the company’s stated global recycling rate is just 28%).
Implementing a wide-scale, affordable, and useful coffee waste recycling system is not impossible for coffee companies that bring in billions of dollars each year. They just don’t want to. It’s so much easier to simply produce a recycled vegetable peeler or some shoes made with a few coffee grounds, get the easy PR win, tick a box and move on.