Circular Coffee Economy – The future of the coffee industry

Global coffee production is estimated to generate more than 20 million tons of organic and non-organic waste each year.

While some of this waste is now recycled, most ends up in landfills or in rivers and seas. The degree of sustainability can be classified as low.

However, more and more companies are implementing processes to promote a circular economy. This also increases sustainability through recycling, reuse and reducing the amount of waste generated.

What is circular economy?

According to the concept of the circular economy, resources are used for as long as possible, because the circular economy is a closed-loop system. It aims to reduce waste, increase resource productivity and reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption. In contrast, in the linear economy, products are made, consumed, and then discarded.

Although the concept of the circular economy has been known since the 1970s, it has only recently gained popularity. This is largely thanks to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).

The foundation defines the circular economy as “restorative and regenerative”. The goal is to move away from the conventional “take- make – waste ” approach that depletes the planet’s natural resources and pollutes the environment.

The foundation adds that understanding resource management, how products are manufactured and reused, and post-production handling are necessary steps to achieve a circular economy.

Coffee and the circular economy

As the number of coffeeshops around the world has grown, so has the associated waste. This leads to high disposal costs as well as millions of tons of CO2 and methane.

To a small extent, we as consumers can also reuse coffee waste and thus contribute to reducing the environmental impact.

Circular economy on coffee farms

Coffee pulp, organic residues from cultivation and other field activities, and effluent from coffee processing have great potential for reuse.

When used efficiently, these residues can improve coffee farm productivity and help reduce the use of agrochemicals. This use can also support the protection of natural resources and have a positive impact on the carbon cycle. Ultimately, proper waste management can open up new business opportunities for coffee farming families and their cooperatives.

For example, it is possible to ferment coffee cherries using the wet process. This method produces various residues such as pulp, parchment and water in which the berries were fermented. These by-products also contain high concentrations of important plant nutrients.

However, in order to use its full potential, for example as a fertilizer, further process steps are necessary. While it is possible to simply let the organic material rot, better results can be achieved by using special bacteria.

There are basically three options for processing these different types of organic waste:

  • composting,
  • carbonation and
  • co-composting.

It is important to know that all three recycling processes can be combined and applied on both artisanal and industrial scales. In this way, the processes can be optimized depending on the origin of the by-products and their intended use.

Composting of coffee waste

A biological process called composting takes place in conjunction with oxygen. This is the transformation of organic waste into a homogeneous substance that can be absorbed by plants and is ensured by the right humidity and temperature.

So, composting is the culmination of several complicated metabolic reactions carried out by various microorganisms which, in the presence of oxygen, use the nitrogen and carbon present to form their own biomass. Additionally, during this process, the microbes generate heat and compost, a solid substrate with a lower nitrogen and carbon content than other substrate types.

Carbonation of coffee waste

Coffee brewing residues can be subjected to thermal and thermochemical processes such as pyrolysis and gasification. Biochar is produced from biomass. This can improve the interaction between soil, plants and microorganisms, as well as the soil’s ability to retain water due to the physicochemical properties of its porous nature.

Co-composting of coffee waste

The processing method, known as co-composting, relies on the mixed materials being broken down in conjunction with oxygen. By utilizing the organic carbon contained in the biodegradable organic solid waste sent for co-composting, a very active decomposition process is achieved along with an increase in temperature. This reduces the pathogens present in the biomass and improves composability.

Co-composting can be done in open or closed form. In open composting, the mixed material is piled up in piles called windrows and left to rot. The material in the stacks must be turned frequently to allow oxygen to enter and to ensure that all parts of the stack are exposed to the same heat treatment, which helps destroy pathogens.

Closed composting is a more complex process that takes place in a closed chamber and requires humidity and airflow control and mechanical mixing.

How does sustainable packaging contribute to the circular economy?

Product packaging is the main source of waste in several sectors. According to studies, up to a fifth of coffee waste consists of packaging.

One of the reasons for this is the dominance of single-use plastic over sustainable alternatives. Inexpensive, reliable and easy to produce, plastic has long been the material of choice for packaging of everything from food to medical devices.

But concerns about the low recycling rates of plastic and the impact of its disposal on the environment have prompted governments to increasingly enact bans on single-use plastic. Around 170 countries have already committed to significantly reducing the use of plastics by 2030.

Switching to sustainable packaging materials, such as B. kraft paper, however, is only one step on the way to a circular economy. To ensure a value proposition that is as sustainable as possible, the brands must also contain information on the proper disposal of the empty packaging.

From the bean to the bin and beyond

The British Coffee Association (BCA) has published a book called “Bean to Bin and Beyond ” (Bean to Bin and Beyond) detailing the progress, barriers and opportunities for the integration of a fully circular economy in the UK coffee industry. Aiming to become the first industry to adopt a fully circular supply chain in the UK, the report sets out a clear framework to help BCA members and the wider industry achieve this goal.

“Bean to Bin and Beyond ” sets out seven targets designed to pave the way for the coffee industry to achieve key principles of the circular economy. This is in line with the Government’s 25-year environmental plan, which sets out the UK’s vision for reducing waste and environmental impact.

The objectives of the BCA for the coffee industry are as follows.

  1. Zero packaging waste by 2025. The aim is to switch to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging for all products.
  2. Supporting the BCA to encourage the UK Government to increase investment in recycling and waste management infrastructure, including investment in composting facilities and improved waste collection infrastructure in local authorities and households.
  3. Responsible sourcing of all packaging materials, including plastic, paper, cardboard and aluminum, by improving supply chain transparency, traceability and investing in technology that reduces the amount of waste going to landfill.
  4. UK coffee companies are to conduct life cycle assessments of their supply chains to identify opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce waste and improve the circular economy.
  5. Industry engagement to develop initiatives to help consumers understand how and where used coffee products and materials can be recycled, including education through best practice examples and recommendations.
  6. In supply chains, both in the UK and globally, companies should look to minimize the carbon footprint of transport and encourage the uptake of green technologies into their transport networks.
  7. Promote the application of circular economy principles in the production and processing stages at source.


All actors in the coffee supply chain must work together to minimize waste and ensure products can be used continuously.

With this in mind, one can imagine that a comprehensive handbook on waste management in coffee production, derived from practical experience, can become a powerful tool for everyone in the industry on the way to a sustainable circular economy in this sector.