Working together towards a circular economy: life beyond the cup of coffee

There are many different definitions of the circular economy, which at their core they have the same thing in common: the reduction of waste, and the movement away from a linear economy which operates on a take-make-consume-throwaway model (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2012). The circular economy has been heralded as a potential strategy to reduce consumption in resources and the production of waste, and has been adopted as an important concept for many industries seeking to ensure a sustainable future (Bundgaard and Huulgaard, 2018).

The coffee shop industry has experienced substantial growth across the globe in recent decades, with increased coffee consumption in many countries and rapid expansion of coffee shop chains and independents increasing the industries energy and resource consumption, as well as waste production. It has been recognised by many within and beyond the coffee shop industry that there are various avenues for potential engagement in the circular economy, to work towards a more environmentally sustainable model.

While disposable coffee cups have often been the point of discussion around coffee shops and waste from strategies to increase recycling rates of disposable cups, to schemes to encourage increased use of reusable coffee cups, there are a plethora of activities and products in the coffee shop that have the potential to contribute to a more circular economy.

A new research summary from the recent research project ‘From the Grounds up: exploring the coffee shop industry and the circular economy’ explores some of the activities taking place in the industry involving the circular economy. The research involves a small scale study into activities in the UK and Germany, and reveals a range of opportunities for the coffee shop industry to be integrated into a circular economy form considerations of building design and energy use, to options around coffee cups, packaging and what happens to used coffee grounds once the coffee has been made. The research revealed a range of activities related to the circular economy from zero waste cafes and coffee grounds recycling innovations to coffee cup sharing schemes and the use of refurbished materials in coffee shops.

Through examining these activities from coffee cup sharing schemes in Germany, to coffee grounds recycling schemes in the UK the research explored the different barriers and drivers for engaging in the circular economy. A crucial point the research highlights how important partnerships are between businesses and organisations for many of the circular economy innovations to be successful. These could be small scale partnerships where coffee grounds are collected by someone traveling around on a bike. Or they could be larger scale partnerships like the example recently documented in the media between Ford Motor Company in the USA and McDonalds using coffee chaff in the creation of some of their car parts (Brown, 2019). Whether it is a small volume of coffee grounds remade into just a few products or large scale recycling processes, they are all contributing to a more circular economy in which waste is reduced, and a more sustainable future may be possible.

As businesses increasingly seek to enhance their environmental sustainability, greater engagement in the circular economy is likely. In doing so this is likely to require new partnerships, new working practices, new innovations and new business models, and greater research will be needed to understand how these all work, and how the benefits can be maximised to create a more sustainable future for all involved.

The research summary is available to download at:


Brown, N. (2019) Coffee chaff is making its way into Ford Cars. Daily Coffee News. 31/12/19. Available at:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012) Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition. Available at:

Bundgaard, A. and Huulgaard, R. (2018) Luxury products for the circular economy? A Case study of Bang & Olufsen. Business Strategy and the Environment, 28: 699-709.

This entry was posted in Cafe Culture, circular economy, Coffee, coffee cups, Coffee industry, Commentaries, Consumers, environment, Germany, Innovation, research, Sustainability, Technology, UK and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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