Making money from coffee waste

Making money from coffee waste

Global coffee production delivers more than 23 million tons of waste every year. There are innovative uses, including using it as a feedstock in biodigesters, and potentially as a raw material for the production of higher value nutraceuticals.

Summary: Global coffee production delivers more than 23 million tons of waste every year. While some of this is still dumped, much of it is composted to produce fertiliser, a useful but rather low value by-product. But there are more innovative uses, including using it as a feedstock in biodigesters, and potentially as a raw material for the production of higher value nutraceuticals.

Why this is important: There is the obvious angle of enhancing the value of a crop (in this case coffee beans), by changing our thinking about what is 'waste'. But there is another angle - impact. According to Fairtrade 25 million smallholders produce 70-80 percent of the world’s coffee. Many of them live an almost subsistence existence, so helping to expand their revenue sources can help enhance the resilience of their communities. So a double win, but sadly (as is often the way in sustainable investing), not an easy one.

The big theme: Agriculture is not only a major source of GHG emissions, it's also the main cause of biodiversity loss and land degradation. Plus, agriculture sits at the intersection of a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Reforming agriculture is going to require massive social and economic change, and a lot of disruption - to the crops we grow, their production methods, to supply chains and to employment.


Alternative uses for coffee waste might seem a niche topic, too small to be worth reading about. But the lessons we can take from this have much wider importance. They illustrate that while the sustainability transitions are partly about regulation and technology, they are also about thinking about challenges in a different way. And they are complex.

In this case its about thinking about waste as a possible resource. And its about taking a wider view. Again in this case about creating impact by making rural communities more resilient. This is going to be one of the key sustainability themes of the coming decade, the future needs to look different from the past. As investors and company sustainability professionals, we need to be prepared, to avoid being reactive.

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The potential value creation from using coffee 'waste' in innovative ways shows how diversity in thought can lead to both financial and sustainability progress.


The Detail


Summary of a research report published in Materials for Renewable and Sustainable Energy

  • Coffee by-products are a renewable, plentiful, cost-effective, and mostly untapped resource that could be used as a biofuel feedstock. However, the energy efficiency and biofuel yields are mostly determined by the biofuel production technologies. A significant portion of coffee production waste is now underutilized due to a lack of comprehensive uses, resulting in considerable environmental deterioration, health difficulties, and toxic phenolic chemical release into wetlands.

  • However, biogas yield from untreated coffee waste is reduced due to the presence in the waste of lignin. This limits the necessary bacterial growth that ferments the sugar monomers, and results in insufficient hydrolysis of cellulose and hemicellulose fibres. In other words, the very characteristics that make the outer layers so good at protecting the coffee bean, mean that it needs more pretreatment before it can become a suitable raw material for producing biogas.

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