Coffee Waste

The Road to Solving the Coffee Ground Problem

Coffee is a massive environmental problem to the tune of 18 million tons of waste per year. Working with our partners at The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), Green Field Solutions mentored a McMillon Studio project group at the University of Arkansas. The student-led group tackled an important food waste challenge: what to do with leftover coffee grounds on an industrial scale.

“We found that coffee ground waste is managed differently at different scales,” said Ethan Potts, project lead and biomedical engineering student at the University of Arkansas. “We went through a human-centered design process to find a solution for this issue.”

Many households either throw away their daily measure of coffee grounds or, less often, compost them. However, as the same approach gets applied to the industrial scale, it becomes an issue that quickly and exponentially grows in severity. Coffee manufacturing facilities produce a surplus of grounds such that landfilling has often been the only option. While some industrial composters accept coffee grounds, there simply is no infrastructure large enough to handle such quantity. 

“Landfill and composting fees are a critical component in a company’s decision on how to dispose of food waste,” said Jennifer Luchte, Sustainability Director at Green Field Solutions. “Because the fees are relatively low in the Midwest, there is not much incentive for companies to upcycle. It’s cheaper to just throw it out.”

That’s why identifying ways to turn waste streams into profit streams is so important.

Upcycling Coffee Grounds

The project team at the McMillon Studio devised an innovative proposal to partner coffee drink manufacturing facilities with road construction companies. Strange as it may sound, someday you could be driving on coffee grounds. 

Identifying a sustainable resting place for used coffee grounds started with research and experimentation. The project group compared potential solutions such as sandbags and fertilizer. After analyzing a long list of pros and cons, the concept of roads surfaced as the one to offer the greatest economic benefit with the fewest environmental consequences.

“We found the best (solution) was to partner coffee drink plants with road construction companies to integrate coffee ground waste into the road building process,” said Potts. “This prevents grounds from being thrown in the landfill and (instead to) be used sustainably.”

Additional experimentation revealed that coffee grounds can be added to the sub-base layer of roads, which serves as extra support and is often comprised of materials such as recycled aggregate and plastics. They also pointed to a study in Australia where coffee grounds were incorporated into the construction of roadways with no noticeable effect to their strength. 

Green Field Solutions’ Love for Coffee

This study is one avenue by which Green Field Solutions is exploring new and innovative ways to repurpose coffee waste, while also supporting education and innovation. As a member of TSC’s Food Waste and Hunger Task Force, Green Field Solutions will continue to work with The Sustainability Consortium on this and other food waste solutions.