Did you know that the coffee you drink has only 1% of the total nutritional value of the bean? The rest remains in the by-products of coffee production and your used coffee grounds. Coffee is an intriguing plant: highly bioactive and rich in oils, fibre, and antioxidants. Some of these rich and interesting components do make it into your morning cup but a majority of it remains in used coffee grounds or in the other waste material produced from farm to cup. Coffee production around the world produces over 23 million tonnes of waste every year. Waste material from coffee starts from the discarded pulp and outer skin to silver skin to discarded bags, cups, and packaging. A lot of this waste, especially organic waste, ends up dumped at farms, leaching excess phosphorus into the soil and disturbing the soil health.
These startling facts were a catalyst for the creation of the Circular Coffee Community (CCC). Launched in 2020, the Circular Coffee Community began as a platform for end consumers and has expanded ever since to work with the entire coffee supply chain.
In 2021, they pivoted towards being a business network and in their current operations, the Circular Coffee Community envisions itself as a network for awareness and engagement with consumers. They provide an open innovation platform to drive circular transformation in the coffee industry. They are currently onboarding start-ups that already have solutions to upcycle coffee waste, following which they will focus on out-of-home customers (cafés, restaurants, and offices) and other players in the coffee value chain.
Circular by Design: How Circularity Serves the Coffee Supply Chain
For farmers, the Circular Coffee Community serves as a network where solutions are developed. A majority of carbon emissions come from farms and this is where the real challenge lies. Farms create 60% of emissions in the supply chain, however, we can't just put the burden on farmers alone but rather support them through education and collaboration while creating clear incentives to go circular.
Farmers need to be given a central role when we consider any circular solutions. As Christina reminds us, we have to be mindful that this is their livelihood and they are the masters of their profession. “Solutions need to work for the farmers, so they need to be developed with the farmers” is how the Circular Coffee Community sees it.
The on-ground work on farms is focused on promoting biodiversity, agroforestry, and creating additional income streams from cascara and carbon trades.
It all starts with a simple fact: 1kg of roasted coffee comes with about 5kgs of wasted biomass, of which 3 kg is cascara. Cascara is the dried outer skin of ripe coffee cherries and this is usually discarded as part of the processing. Rather than simply viewing it as waste, cascara was eye-opening for the team at CCC, expanding their view of how circularity can be implemented for coffee waste.
Cascara is still relatively new in the coffee world, and the Circular Coffee Community is at the forefront of creating awareness and demand for cascara and testing new products to bring cascara to wider markets. Cascara is just something fancy for café menus, its uses extend beyond the consumer. For example, CCC is working on projects to promote composting cascara in Brazil. “If we keep taking biomass from the fields but never return anything back, then we’re simply depleting resources” explains Christina Singh, Head of Innovation/Community Manager at CCC.
Innovating with cascara instead of discarding it opens new avenues for revenue generation on farms and tackles both waste management concerns on farms as well as creating economic security. Coffee comes with many risks, the foremost being financial. Farmers across the coffee belt are pressurised by low and volatile prices and the plant itself is difficult to cultivate. Facing these challenges and watching previous generations struggle can push many younger people away from coffee production.
A form of regenerative agriculture, agroforestry provides an alternative income stream for coffee farmers but doesn’t increase the value of the coffee itself. The Circular Coffee Community steps in here to create consumer awareness and help make biodiversity a more attractive offering for end consumers.
Finally, Carbon trading offers farmers a clear way to record, monitor, and verify their carbon footprint and create carbon credits that they can sell. Carbon credits make every tree an investment and so farmers get paid for both coffee and carbon. This helps promote agroforestry as well.
The Future is Circular
Looking to the future, Circular Coffee Community has recently submitted a proposal to the Danish development fund, DANIDA (Danish International Development Agency) to offer research grants for 3-4 PhD candidates from Uganda. This doctoral programme aims to form new businesses around coffee waste and agroforestry with the end goal of ensuring sustainable income streams for the next generation of coffee farmers.
On the café side, Circular Coffee Community has partnered with a Copenhagen-based beverage company that specialises in readymade cocktails. Their collaboration gave rise to an espresso martini with almost no coffee! Instead, used coffee grounds are steeped in alcohol for 2 weeks and paired with a coffee liqueur. CCC collects the coffee grounds from cafés and supplies this to the beverage company: reducing waste and making it cheaper for the businesses involved.
While their focus remains on coffee as the primary resource, they're also testing products around sustainable disposables. One of their more exciting projects is collaborating with a company that makes coffee cups with 50% used coffee grounds and 50% other plant material. These cups are naturally compostable in 3 months and also fertilise the soil. Other projects include edible spoons and stirrers and experiments with silver skin as a filler for disposables.
What Lies Ahead for the Circular Coffee Community and Era of We?
The synergy between Era of We and the Circular Coffee Community works on multiple levels.
The business models developed by Circular Coffee Community have to create value, for which consumer activation is vital. Era of We creates a direct link between consumers and farmers, which works well for Circular Coffee Community. A community needs a platform for activation, and Christina envisions Era of We being this platform for the Circular Coffee Community. This is a platform where people can share information, talk, and work together. Whatever happens on the farms should be known to the consumers, remarks Christina, and while Era of We views the socioeconomic challenges of coffee, the
Circular Coffee Community is more focused on environmental impact.
Ultimately, system integration is the biggest draw for the Circular Coffee Community on Era of We, where they hope to get closer to both consumers and farmers while studying and monitoring data to implement circularity throughout the coffee value chain.