Beyond the beans: coffee shops and the circular economy

Circular Economy Conference 2017 Earlier this month I took part in the Circular Economy: Transitioning to Sustainability conference held at Coventry University, presenting some of my research around the coffee shop industry and the circular economy. The conference discussed a range of topics related to the circular economy with a number of keynote speakers. I particularly found the talk from Professor Kirsi Niinimaki from Aalto University, about sustainable fashion, really interesting.

Unlike some academic conferences where you stand at the front and talk to the audience and take questions at the end, the format for this conference was based more around roundtables, where there a number of sessions where people gather to listen to the speaker, but also to engage more in a discussion about the topic being presented. Generally my talk outlined the growth of the coffee shop industry and its implications for sustainability and in particular how some businesses and organisations have sought to engage in the circular economy.

Circular Economy Conference 2017

The phenomenal growth of coffee shops (in the UK, but also globally) has consequently meant a rise in energy consumption and the production of waste. It’s estimated that 500,000 tonnes of coffee waste is produced in the UK each year, and 7 million disposable coffee cups each day.  It is estimated that less than 1% of these coffee cups are recycled – an issue I have written about before both on this blog, and on The Conversation.  After the issue reached the mainstream media last year as part of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘war on waste’ there have been many developments.

One of the most common ways in which coffee shops engage in the circular economy is through efforts to recycle coffee cups, with some larger coffee shop chains expanding their recycling programmes. A range of stakeholders in the coffee industry have also begun to coordinate efforts to address the issue of coffee cup recycling (and packaging waste more generally) via the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group. There have been lots of localised efforts too, such as the Square Mile Challenge. There are however several barriers to recycling initiatives ranging from cost, logistics to consumer behaviours.

While one way of reducing landfill from coffee cups is to recycle the, another would be to use less of them in the first place – which would also reduce the energy and materials needed to produce them in the first place. There are a wide range of reusable cups on offer, from coffee shops themselves and from other brands, such as Keep Cup or Ecoffee Cup. However, reusable cups have been around for a long time, and in many places have just not been adopted in regular use.

Another option is compostable coffee cups, and there a number of options on the market, although many of these need to be sent to a commercial composting facility – the conditions in your average garden aren’t suitable for composting these cups.

Aside from the cups, another area of coffee waste which has experienced a range of innovative ideas is with coffee grounds. Kaffeeform, a German company, have found a way to use coffee grounds to make reusable cups, to Rosalie McMillan who has created a range of jewellery that uses coffee grounds. A more common way to use coffee grounds is in the garden and many coffee shops encourage consumers to take coffee grounds from them.

Recycled coffee jewellery

One of my favourite ways to use coffee grounds, is for growing mushrooms. Grocycle, have been growing oyster mushrooms from waste coffee grounds since 2011. They started collecting coffee grounds from cafes in Plymouth and have continued to expand their operations with a mushroom farm which supplies mushrooms to restaurants and business as well as education activities to help others stat their own mushroom farm. I had great fun growing these, and cooking with them later.

Another use for coffee grounds is to produce energy. Biobean, the first company in the world to industrialise the process of turning coffee grounds into fuel collect coffee grounds and turn them into ‘coffee logs’ which can be used for energy generation. Although initially Biobean’s activities were based around London, they are now expanding to operate around Birmingham.

Then there are lots of other different other things being done with coffee waste products, from the Huskee Cup which uses the coffee husks, or chaff (the layer around the coffee bean) to produce coffee cups. The Kickstarter campaign for this has been very popular so far.


There are more and more innovative ideas appearing about how to reduce waste and reuse materials in the coffee industry. There are many opportunities to engage in the circular economy. There will be more about this topic on the blog in the future as I continue with the research and begin to explore more international examples of the coffee shop industry engaging with the circular economy, and consider the inhibitors and enablers for the industry to do so. If you know of any interesting examples, do get in touch!

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2 Responses to Beyond the beans: coffee shops and the circular economy

  1. cactusjake says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to this important and exciting part of running a cafe and consuming coffee. It really irks me when brands advertise that their products are compostable, and then I find out they have to be taken to an industrial facility. There are none anywhere near me, and I love composting at home.

    I think a bigger discount for bringing in your own cup would go a long way towards consumers adopting the practice. Great work and important work! Let’s keep it up!


    • It’s frustrating there is so much confusion, particularly for consumers, around recycling and composting of coffee shop waste (cups being one the largest issues). It would be good to have an option to compost at home, although there are lots of reasons why it might be a while before we see that in some locations – in the UK we don’t get warm enough temperatures for a start! Discounts on drinks definitely seems to be the most popular method for trying to incentivise customers, although a lot of independent cafes I’ve talked to said that while they have offered this for some time, most still prefer a disposable cup. A decent reusable cup with your own cafe branding can be great advertising though, and lots of independent places here have their own. Who knows, maybe there’ll be an Orange Cactus keep cup in the future?

      Liked by 1 person

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