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Coffee Waste Fueling the Future

illustrated cartoon of coffee grounds biofuel powering up the engine of a double-decker bus

Used coffee grounds are recycled and reused in many different ways, but did you know that the majority of the material still gets thrown away? That is about to change, thanks to the bold idea of coffee grounds biofuel.

Scientists from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom have found a simplified way of converting used coffee grounds into biofuel while reducing the time and cost of doing so, making it a viable source of fuel.

“A huge amount of spent coffee grounds, which are currently just being dumped in the landfill, could now be used to bring significant environmental benefits over diesel from fossil fuel sources,” said Dr. Vesna Najdanovic-Visak of the Lancaster team.

Another group of bright minds from Shell and LEZÉ the Label, a Vancouver-based sustainable apparel company, are creating a more sustainable future using coffee grounds as well. In collaboration with clean tech company bio-bean, as well as Argent Energy, they have created the B20 biofuel. This bold innovation is a fuel that will help tackle London’s issues with emissions and air pollution.

Fixing the London Air Pollution Problem

London air pollution levels in 2017 were at an all-time high, even just five days after ringing into the New Year. It was not a one-time thing either, as it has been happening regularly. In fact, 60% of the city’s 97 pollution-monitoring sites broke legal limits in 2016, as revealed by a Kings College London study.

Air pollution has many adverse effects on human health, including strokes, heart disease, and diabetes. For children, it could stunt their lung growth by up to 10% and even cause asthma in healthy kids. With such statistics and the number of health issues arising, the city government and various bold innovators felt compelled to fix the growing air pollution issue.

Arthur Kay, founder of bio-bean, explained how the B20 biofuel can help power London buses without any need for modifications, all while reducing emissions. With the average Londoner drinking about 2.3 cups of coffee daily, this produces annual coffee waste exceeding 200,000 tons. bio-bean sees this as an opportunity to collect, dry, and process coffee grounds, extracting coffee oil that can be used on its own or blended to create the B20 version with Argent Energy. This effort is part of Shell’s #makethefuture campaign supporting companies and entrepreneurs focused on energy innovations with positive environmental and global impacts.

Coffee -- good for the body, and now for the environment, too.
Coffee — good for the body, and now for the environment, too.

“With the support of Shell, bio-bean and Argent Energy have created thousands of liters of coffee-derived B20 biodiesel which will help power London buses for the first time,” said Kay, who won Shell LiveWIRE’s Innovation Award in 2013 for the coffee grounds biofuel idea. Bio-bean also secured a deal with Network Rail to collect coffee ground waste from London’s seven largest train stations, and is planning for even greater expansion in the future. “It’s a great example of what can be done when we start to reimagine waste as an untapped resource.”

Sinead Lynch, Shell’s UK Country Chair, expressed support in the idea. “We’re pleased to be able to support bio-bean to trial this innovative new energy solution which can help to power buses, keeping Londoners moving around the city — powered in part by their waste coffee grounds,” she said.

London’s various coffee shops have enough waste to power 15,000 homes. In a sense, people who drink coffee aren’t just fueling themselves – they are helping produce raw material for a green fuel resource.

More than Just Coffee Grounds Biofuel

bio-bean has other ideas for spent coffee grounds. To get to where the company is now, they produced Coffee Logs, which include biomass pellets and biomass briquettes. “The Coffee Logs have been great at demonstrating the full circle. People drink the coffee, we collect their waste coffee grounds and then provide them back with the logs that they can use to heat their homes,” Kay explained.

The coffee logs can be used in fireplaces and stoves instead of using up wooden logs. “So far, it is the Coffee Logs that our business is built on,” he said. “The biofuel is more of a technical demonstration of what can be done in the future.”

There are other companies making use of coffee grounds in bold ways:

  • Wound Up – a new wire filament used in 3D printers made up of recycled coffee grounds, created by c2renew and 3Dom USA. They 3D-print coffee cups literally from coffee.
  • Huskee Cup – created by Saxon Wright, co-owner of Pablo and Rusty coffee brand. The company makes reusable, stackable coffee cups made from sustainable materials that are comfortable to hold, durable, and keep coffee warmer longer.
  • Kaffeeform – created by Julian Lechner, the company also creates espresso cups and saucers from coffee grounds mixed with natural glues and sustainably sourced wood.
  • Starbucks Japan – mandated by law, Starbucks in Japan turns their used coffee grounds either into cattle feed or fertilizer via the Coffee Grounds Recycling Loop.
  • Ghidaq al-Nizar – this Indonesian artist makes amazing coffee “paintings,” often on dried leaves, creating unique pieces of art.
  • RITI Printer – the company has a brand of eco-friendly ink, from either used coffee grounds or old tea leaves.

Finding value in waste is a bold idea that’s also good for the environment. Using spent coffee grounds as fuel or in other unique ways gives new meaning to the phrase, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Contributing Writer: Imee Malabonga

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