How coffee waste can help fight climate change: insights from a “binfluencer”

11 July 2023

Enjoy cuppas from cafes that turn coffee waste and soft plastics into valuable resources. Reground, a Melbourne Award-winning social enterprise, is making this possible across Melbourne.

Ground coffee and chaff are byproducts of roasting and brewing coffee. Australia produces around 75,000 tonnes of these materials every year, and the majority goes into landfill.

When food and organic matter rots away in landfill it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This makes a significant contribution to climate change, and it’s entirely avoidable.

A barista empties coffee waste into a Reground bin

Coffee waste doesn’t need to be waste at all. In fact, grounds and chaff can create nutrient-rich compost that supercharges plant growth, particularly green vegetables. Worms and chickens love it too.

Reground delivers coffee grounds and chaff directly to home gardeners and community gardens in the City of Melbourne for free.

A Reground driver at work

From waste to resource: a critical transformation

Fiona Parsons, proud “binfluencer” and Communications Manager for Reground, said many baristas don’t question putting coffee waste into landfill. But when an alternative is presented, it can be powerful.

A user measures their impact on the Reground app

“It just takes someone who’s had different experiences saying ‘there are different ways we can do this’ to make us question behaviours that we’ve taken as natural and automatic. People are usually all for it,” Fiona said.

“Likewise, gardeners don’t say to us ‘this is crazy’. Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen and great for plants. We didn’t invent that concept. It makes perfect sense. We’re just connecting the dots.

“At the collection point the grounds and chaff are waste products and at the garden it’s valuable again. That transformation is critical.”

Reground customer Richard in his thriving garden

While gardens are Reground’s core focus, to support communities with free compost that boosts soil quality and food security, there are many more novel and innovative uses for coffee waste products on the rise.

Firebricks, furniture and cups are already being made, and the Reground team is always on the lookout to collaborate on new products. They’ve also contributed to a major soil regeneration project.

Stuart tends to a lemon tree using Reground compost

Optimism for soft-plastic recycling

Behind food waste and coffee grounds, soft plastics make up the majority of recyclables disposed of by cafes and hospitality businesses. Reground has been collecting soft plastics for years.

When soft plastics service REDcycle collapsed under the volume of soft plastics it was collecting, Reground was overwhelmed with new requests.

“It was too many to handle while operating sustainably and refusing to stockpile plastics ourselves,” Fiona said.

Reassuringly, a solution seems to be around the corner.

Staff member Ninna with Reground’s first van

“We need to recycle soft plastics locally, at-scale and in the best way possible. This keeps soft plastic in the economy, closing the loop to demonstrate a circular economy,” Fiona said.

“Our Victorian recycling partner is using Australia-first technology to turn soft plastics back into oil, which forms the base of all plastic product. This eliminates the need to mine for crude oil to create virgin plastics.

“I recently toured the facility and it made me feel very optimistic. The process is efficient, low-waste and works with a wide range of plastics. The company is now waiting for larger equipment to arrive so we can scale up collections.”

Why changing waste behaviour matters

The best way to reduce waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. The next best options are: minimising waste, then reusing items, then recycling them, then converting waste to energy. Landfill is a last resort.

“The most effective thing we can do is avoid or reduce waste. But we have to be realistic. Plastic is a necessary evil in a lot of ways, so we need to be able to manage it effectively,” Fiona said.

“The collapse of REDcycle was an example of how rapidly we can get out of our depth when we rely on traditional, linear systems. It was a wake-up call about the amount of waste we create and our capacity to properly manage it.

“Putting something in a bin doesn’t guarantee a sustainable endpoint for that item. We need to take our time to build durable capacity and transparent processes.”

Reground in action in a Melbourne laneway

A plan for sustainable, balanced growth

Reground currently collects coffee waste and soft plastics from 350 cafes and businesses, a number Fiona expects to increase significantly in the coming years. But Reground is focused on sustainable and efficient growth.

“When we get new enquiries, we don’t immediately say yes. We want to find the most fuel-efficient way to add new businesses to our delivery round. That can take time,” Fiona said.

Another of Reground’s key principles is to recycle coffee waste within 30 km of where it’s being brewed. To deepen their impact, the team is working on a blueprint to create regional hubs in Geelong, Bendigo and beyond.

Julian cleans out compost bins at a community garden

“It’s sort of like a franchise model, but not one where the profits come back to us. We’re looking to grow our impact, not our finances,” Fiona said.

“We want to engage people already working in these communities and provide them with all the resources they need to be successful, alongside opportunities for additional revenue streams and employment.”

In addition to the regional hubs, Reground will also continue offering consultancy and advocacy services to help like-minded groups – including corporates, retailers and apartment buildings – to manage waste more effectively.

Alice and Fiona (right) completing a waste audit

The team’s big goal is to see all the coffee waste produced in Victoria kept out of landfill and returned to the soil locally. And with regular enquiries from interstate and overseas – including Indonesia and Mexico – the sky is the limit.

“I think everyone feels the call to contribute to make the world a better place and to fix the issues they see. For us, Reground is an avenue to do that – a way to use our skills in service of our ideals and goals,” Fiona said.

“The more time you spend in an industry like waste the more you realise certain areas are undernourished, and we can fill those gaps as needed.

“Reground could be doing almost anything in the sphere of waste sustainability in 5 or 10 years. I’m really excited to see it progress.”

Reground certification in a cafe window

Reground wins Melbourne Award for Sustainability

The City of Melbourne has recognised Reground’s amazing achievements with the 2022 Melbourne Award for Sustainability.

The Melbourne Awards are our city’s highest accolade, celebrating the inspirational Melburnians who dedicate their time and energy to making this city a world leader.

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