Coffee, coffee, coffee. The lifeblood that runs through the veins of the city. And most of mine. The always accessible IV-drip of flat whites and cappuccinos in Sydney has gripped hold of us with a vengeance, and will not be letting go.
But like all good material pleasures, it doesn’t miraculously appear and then vanish without a trace. We all know that coffee beans come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. I’m not talking about the sweet caffeine molecules binding to your adenosine receptors – I mean the used-up grounds. As the byproducts of things we love continue to clutter our bins (and sabotage any ill-fated attempts at minimalism), it’s important to know where we’re getting them from and what to do with the remains.
Let’s start from the grounds-up. Whilst making coffee at home, the best thing to do is keep the used grounds out of the rubbish bin. This usually means composting, but if you’re feeling creative you can take a shot at giving them new life! Mix them with coconut oil for a luxurious body scrub, or check out this list of DIY ideas. However if you’re like me and need a daily coffee fix, you’ll probably end up with more grounds than you know what to do with. Don’t have a compost? There’s an app for that. ShareWaste aims to connect those who have organic waste, and those who need it.
There’s so many important uses for organic waste! You can even talk to your local coffee shop to get some grounds to work with yourself. Umu in Bondi is a plant-based cafe and foodstore and manager Nick Doebeli says other than compost, one of their staff has been using their grounds to grow mushrooms, ‘they’re delicious and grow brilliantly in the used coffee grounds, it’s a nice circle for us.’
Another startup tackling this creatively is Raise The Bar Skincare. This brand new small business is awesome: they make repurposed coffee body scrubs. Zero waste, no-plastic, and locally operated in Sydney, these little bars of goodness are diverting heaps of coffee grounds from going into landfills.
“But wait,” you ask, “don’t coffee grounds bio-degrade anyways?”
Well, it’s not that simple.
According to Planet Ark’s 2016 report, an average of 921 cafes produce 3,000 tonnes of used coffee grounds per year. In Sydney alone.
For comparison, a blue whale weighs about 115 tonnes. That’s thirty blue whales of coffee grounds. That’s like, 4,000 cows. That’s one-fourth as heavy as the Eiffel Tower. Does that seem astronomical? It’s no secret our collective coffee addiction is ludicrous, but I thought I was hallucinating when I read that figure. And guess what, that same report points out that around 7% of these grounds end up in worm farms and gardens. . .and 93% ends up in landfills. Why is this particularly troublesome?
It was Brody Smith from Bugisu Project (a nonprofit zero-waste coffee provider!) that first tipped me off to the importance of composting or reusing spent coffee grounds. Apparently, those tonnes of coffee grounds in landfills release methane and carbon dioxide. You know. Those gasses that contribute to global warming (yikes). So, what to do?
Large-scale coffee makers like cafes produce the most used grounds, and can influence where they end up. If you work in the industry, find out how your shop handles their coffee grounds! If they go into the landfill, check out collection systems like Reground, Bugisu Project, or Planet Ark’s new project launching at the end of 2018.
Are you a customer? ‘Vote with your wallet,’ and support cafes doing the right thing. For those of us not brave enough to ask our local barista how they dispose of their coffee grounds, consider looking at which coffee brands have partnered with the above services. Or, if you hear about a great sustainable café through word of mouth, check it out!
Now that we’ve covered the grounds, what about the beans? For those of us who like a morning cup o’ joe at home, we can decide exactly which beans we buy. However, buying coffee from an ethical source is more complicated than just checking for a label. Take Fair Trade for example: For small growers, a certification can be quite pricey, and a study in Uganda and Ethiopia sponsored by the UK government found that in some situations flower, coffee, and tea growers were paid less with a Fairtrade certification than those without. So there’s . . . some controversy.
Darcy and Brody, who source their coffee from Uganda, can attest to this challenge.
‘If you are a small farmer’s collective, like the organisation that we work with in Uganda, the capital cost of acquiring that certification just to plaster a label on yourself of something that you’re already doing is not oftentimes worthwhile.
The alley we’ve gone down is, we are fair trade – we’re not certified “Fair Trade” – but all of our practices are at that standard or higher. And we can communicate that to you through stories, footage, and knowing exactly everything about our crop use.’
This is not to dissuade you from buying FairTrade certified products. Rather, it means that just because something doesn’t have the certification doesn’t mean it isn’t ethical, or sustainable. However if you’re a hurried grocery shopper, labels are still a good jumping-off point to make sure you’re buying coffee free from forced, child, or trafficked labour. Direct-trade, UTZ, and Rainforest Alliance are good things to look for. If you have more time to do your own research, ShopEthical ranks coffee brands based on company track records.
Another great way to find sustainable and ethical beans is through word of mouth: don’t be afraid to ask your local barista for some advice! Oftentimes small, local cafes will be able to tell you how they source their coffee, how they decided on a supplier, and can recommend some great beans.
Nick from Umu explains their beans (which they also sell so you can have it at home), ‘ We have worked with reputable suppliers to create our own organic blend. We mix different beans together ourselves on site to get the perfect balance of strength and smoothness while knowing we’re serving organic, quality coffee.’
Just taking the simple step to learn where your coffee comes from is a worthy endeavour. Coffee goes through a long process to reach us, and it’s important to respect the due diligence that café owners, coffee suppliers, and growers go through to get it to us. In just navigating the world of coffee-suppliers for Bugisu Project, Darcy and Brody learned so much about what goes on behind the scenes.
‘For this region particularly, there’s so many different ways that people can buy coffee. Almost everyone is a coffee farmer, but only some have the chance to sell it directly and for a fair price.
Many will sell it to a middleman who will come along, buy it for a low price – often without talking about what the actual market prices are – and then [sell it to an exporter] for a markup.
And it’s kind of amazing that you can walk around to all of these exporters, and the price difference is huge. Some will be below market price, and some will be much higher because the farmers have actually had the chance to sell it for what it’s worth. When it’s higher, it’s also probably gone through a process where the farmers have been educated not only on sustainable farming techniques, but also on what good quality coffee looks like I guess to people in the West.’
Most of us want to know which kind of business we’re supporting, so take a minute to find out the story behind your favourite beans. Then tell your friends to do the same. If we’re going to drink 30 blue whales of coffee per year (just in Sydney alone), it’s our responsibility to know where it comes from and where it goes.