The Coffee Shop Industry, Recycling and the Circular Economy

Last week I had a great opportunity to give a guest lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands to talk about the coffee shop industry, recycling and the circular economy. The lecture focused not only on exploring the implications of the rapid growth of the coffee shop industry for waste production and management, but on how different stakeholders in the industry have been engaging with the circular economy.

Coffee shop industry recycling slides

This began with a quick exploration of coffee shop industry growth patterns, but also the implications of future growth patterns for energy consumption and waste production, in particular the rapid growth taking place in the Asia Pacific region, and the Middle East.

coffee wasteThe scale of the issue of waste production for the coffee shop industry was highlighted throughout the lecture, trying to look beyond the disposable coffee cup that gets so much of the media attention, but to consider a range of different waste and consumption issues such as the amount of coffee grounds produced or plastic used. The lecture also tried to link some of these discussions to more conceptual ones about the circular economy, different approaches to the circular economy, to think about why businesses might engage in circular economy practices – from attempts to reduce costs, to pressure from government or a perceived obligation to the environment. The main body of the lecture tried to illuminate the range of different ways the coffee shop industry (and all the different types of businesses and stakeholders that are related to it) have been making efforts to address issues of waste management, and engagement with the circular economy.

There was of course discussion around the amount of disposable coffee cups that end in landfill and attempts to try and reduce them, from the Square Mile Challenge in London and the proposed ‘latte levy’ in the UK, as well as efforts from coffee shops to encourage the use of reusable cups, to the Freiburg Cup and Re-cup schemes that have been in operation in Germany.

  • Freiburg Cup: introduced in 2016 a scheme in the city of Freiburg where for a deposit of €1 consumers can get a reusable coffee cup (and usually a discount on their coffee) which can then be returned to a number of participating stores for washing and reuse (and the deposit is returned). Participating stores have an identifying sticker in the window.
  • Re-cup: a similar coffee cup sharing scheme which has been adopted in a number of cities in Germany including Munich, Wasserburg, Berlin, Olenburg, Ludwigsburg, Rosenheim, and Cologne. For a €1 deposit you get a cup that is made of 10% recyclable plastic, and available in different sizes, which can be returned in participating stores in any of these cities. Again there is usually a discount on the coffee purchased too. There’s also an app which shows you which cafes, bakeries and stores are taking part.

recup reusable coffee cup germany

Several examples of how coffee grounds have been reused were also discussed:

  • Various free coffee grounds schemes which provides consumers with free coffee ground and information about how to use them in the garden etc.
  • Businesses like Grocycle in the UK, and Upcycle in France, who use the grounds for growing mushrooms.
    • Grocycle have been collecting coffee grounds from coffee shops to grow mushrooms in Plymouth since 2011. They have since expanded their operating with a mushroom farm which supplies mushrooms to restaurants and businesses as well as education activities to help others start their own mushroom farm. They also have home growing packs too, which are a good fun, and produce very tasty mushrooms. Their website suggests that since 2011 they have recycled 62,337 kg of coffee, helped 29,932 people grow mushrooms at home and trained 862 people in mushroom cultivation using coffee grounds.
    • Upcycle based in Paris collects coffee grounds from automatic coffee machines to grow oyster mushrooms. Left over material is given to local farmers.

  • Businesses who use coffee grounds to make clothing (and other products) in Taiwan. Singtex has developed a process for turning coffee waste and plastic bottles into fabric, as well as extracting coffee oil from the grounds which can then be used in cosmetic and soaps by other businesses.
  • Innovations in design where products have been made that include used coffee grounds, from the Kaffeform coffee cup, jewellery designed by Rosalie McMillan to furniture made by Re-Worked. Of course it’s not only the grounds that are being reused – some businesses are even finding ways to reuse the coffee husks, for example Huskee Cup.
  • Innovations in energy production. In the UK, the company Bio-bean established in 2014 pioneered the process of recycling waste coffee grounds in to biofuels and biochemical.

In terms of energy there are also businesses who are seeking to reduce energy consumption. The example of Costa Coffee in the UK was discussed, exploring their Eco-pod café concept that was designed to be the UK’s first ‘zero energy’ coffee shop, as well as their new roastery which had set itself zero waste targets.

The lecture tried to show how there are various innovations in different areas of the coffee shop supply chain where efforts are being made to try and reduce consumption, as well as reduce the production of waste. Moving to a more circular economy model is one way businesses have been doing this, and the example of the Danish business Kaffe Bueno was mentioned which is a start-up based in Copenhagen. They are a coffee trader and roaster who supply coffee from organic micro-lots in Columbia to various places in Copenhagen, but then also recycle the used coffee grounds to produce natural cosmetics – they aim to build Scandinavia’s first bio-refinery in 2018 too.

There were also discussions of attempts to establish zero-waste coffee shops, such as Silo in Melboune, but also the difficulties in trying to run this sort of business and barriers that may be faced when trying to engage in circular economy business practices.

Pao de do Espinho portugal coffee shop specialty coffeeThe importance of different national café and coffee cultures was highlighted. Different café cultures have implications for the amount of waste produced. Rising prevalence of takeaway coffee cup culture in countries with increasing numbers of coffee shops means that there are likely to be growing issues around the number of disposable cups in different markets. There are issues around the consumption rates of coffee, and how the coffee production side of the industry can keep up too, as well as broader issues around energy consumption and waste management in all areas of the coffee shop supply chain.

In essence the lecture tried to summarise that:

  • The coffee shop industry is a fast growing retail sector.
  • Rapid expansion has implications for consumption and waste patterns. Efforts in sustainability should be an important component of business operations for coffee shops.
  • There are a range of ways coffee shops can engage in the circular economy.
  • Most common schemes including recycling of coffee cups, coffee grounds and energy reduction.
  • There are a range of stakeholders which can influence how coffee shops engage in sustainability activities and circular economy practices.
  • National café and coffee cultures have an impact on coffee shop consumption patterns and should be considered in any new sustainability schemes or circular economy practices developed.


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11 Responses to The Coffee Shop Industry, Recycling and the Circular Economy

  1. michaelhpdx says:

    Good summary of some of the recycling and green initiatives, thank you. Is it possible to find a copy of the presentation slides online, or a recording of the presentation on YouTube?



  2. Pingback: Rise of the Reusables: Steps Towards Sustainability in Coffee Cup Use - CURB

  3. Outi says:

    Most interesting 🙂 Can you share this with me as well?
    Thank you so much!


  4. Michael Rawlings says:

    I thought this wS a great read and I would like to know more.
    I noticed you have offered to send the slides to someone in a previous comment, are you able to send them to me also?


  5. charlotte says:


    I really enjoyed reading this and would love to get the lecture slides if possible? my email address is

    Thanks in advance!


  6. Mirko Angele says:

    Hello …There im running a cup exchange initiative in Melbourne would love to see the slides from your lecture



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