The Zero Waste Coffee Project

Firing up with Spent Coffee Grounds. A talk with Valérie Grammont, SMART & GREEN, France

Logs and fire starters made from spent coffee grounds. Smart and Green, Paris, France.

Good morning, Valérie! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today!

Oh, my pleasure!

Valérie, the company you have founded in Paris, "Smart & Green", sells logs and fire starters that are made from spent coffee grounds. What is it about spent coffee grounds in particular that led you to want to develop such a product?

The interesting thing about coffee grounds is that they contain about 6% of lipids. This makes it an excellent fuel; it heats 67% more strongly than wood and that is well documented in the scientific literature. It was when I discovered this characteristic that I said to myself, what a shame, today we throw it away. There is a lot of waste that ends up buried or incinerated so why not do something productive with it, so I started initially with the idea of a log, and then we developed the firelighters.

I read an article about you and your company in Le Figaro. You mentioned there that the development process for the logs took 3 years. Certainly, these years of development must have presented all kinds of challenges, but which of these challenges were the most surprising or unexpected?

The most complicated was the industrialization phase. I have no technical training, so I wanted to start with a product that was relatively simple to develop. In the end the formulation side was relatively simple, a bit like working on a recipe in the kitchen, but when we moved on to the industrialization phase, it became a real pain in the neck because we thought that we would be using the same type of machines used for compressing wood into logs. When we tried to actually do this, it absolutely didn't work with our material, so in fact we had to reinvent a new process.

I had a bit of a warning that this is the nature of industry, I was told, you're going on a few months to a few years of development and you'll see that whatever your estimated timeline is, you’ll need to double it, and indeed it turned out that we really encountered a lot of difficulties on the industrialization part. Finally, we had to create a new machine. In light of this, we decided to file a patent, which was not at all in my initial idea because for me, I was looking at something simple in development, not anticipating any processes so complex as to require patent protection, and then ultimately, we struggled enough to protect and patent it.

So, essentially you had to re-design the entire fabrication process!

Yes, completely, we had to create a new machine in order to carry out this process.

That leads into my next question: were there any moments in the process when you thought about giving up?

Yes! There were plenty of moments during the first big step, there absolutely were. About 9 months into product development, the engineer I was working with told me: "Listen, Valérie, we won't make it. It’s not going to work. We tried everything, we tried all the different machines, it doesn't work, we won't get there."

So there I was, I went home, I had a good cry. I mean, I tell you that what am I doing, it's the project of my life, but I had to confront that maybe it's more complicated than I thought. I spent a few sleepless nights asking myself, hey, have we really looked at all the machines? Have we really tried everything? Because, maybe it’s not so nice to say it this way, but I come from a marketing background, where we need to employ a fair bit of creativity. We always try to generate new ideas to think a little off the beaten path, whereas the team of engineers I worked with, they were very… how to say it… they were thinking “inside the box”, and when it didn't fit inside the box, well then it must be impossible, end of story!

I spent those nights asking myself, have we really exhausted every avenue? We had based our search around wood and the compression of wood, and I thought, if this is the situation with these machines, there may be other technologies that could help us instead. So, I asked around in my little network of industry professionals: listen, what we tested doesn't work, so why doesn't it work? What makes it not work? We started to generate new ideas to develop our product. That was one big moment when I asked myself if I should continue or not. Reasonably speaking, that was not the only moment like that, but it was a significant one.

Good thing you continued because ultimately you succeeded! Tell me a little about how many products you currently offer and which ones are the best-sellers?

Today, we have a very small range of three products: one log and two fire starters. The log is rather atypical perhaps, but it is still a log; you put it right in your fireplace, you introduce a flame on either side, and it ignites without any other product. You don't need additional firelighters or accelerants to get it going, and a single log will last two hours with beautiful flames, producing as much heat as 4 conventional logs of wood.

Our log is undoubtedly much more expensive than wood, but the aim is to simplify lighting the fireplace for people for whom wood is too complicated and inconvenient. We're in a society that's going faster and faster, where you don't want to spend time fussing with lighting your fireplace. There are people who would still burn wood, but in the end, they're only going to use their fireplace a few times a year, maybe around the holidays. Ultimately wood is complicated to light, it's complicated to store, it's complicated to handle. My idea was to offer a “magic” log, so to speak, to make it easier for these people to use their fireplaces.

As for the fire starters they are both very versatile for the barbecue and for the fireplace. The first type is quite economical so in this respect, we are on a par with the fire lighters already available on the market. It´s a very competitive product.

The second type is more powerful. It is a little more expensive, but it's meant for people who don’t have kindling, which is often a problem. In fact, when we have large logs of wood, we often have the fire starter but then we don't have the little branches and twigs that will allow the heat to ignite the bigger pieces of wood. This firelighter makes it possible to completely dispense with kindling.

As far as sales are concerned, I would say the fire starters sell the best for several reasons, firstly because they are more competitive in price, you can use them all year round, in barbecues during the summer as well as in their fireplaces in winter, unlike the log which is mostly for winter.

One thing I discovered when I started on this market is that the French are very lazy about lighting a wood fire. So, there are a lot of people who use fire starter products instead of making their fire with paper, small pieces of wood, small crates and logs, people don't bother with those anymore, they buy ready-made fire starters. It's a big market in France and that market is helping to support our sales.

Can you tell me a bit about your typical customer, and why your product is resonating with them? Do you know if people are more focused on heating their homes in the winter or using these firelighters at outdoor barbecues in the summer?

The main thing with these products and the customers who are buying them is a general ecological approach. Our customers tend to have a more pronounced eco-friendly streak than the average consumer, and they want to feel like they are contributing to the larger efforts of recycling waste. Each time they buy a product like this, it's a small action, but cumulatively it adds up, brick by brick, to build up this greater idea. Each log represents the waste from 100 cups of coffee, so the recycling aspect is really quite significant. It's not just a little bit of coffee grounds mixed in with other components.

Another consideration relates to the barbecue, as more and more people are becoming wary of synthetic chemical ignition products. They say to themselves, well, we don't really know whether there are traces of those chemicals that settle onto the food, what impact does that have on what we eat. More and more, an increasing number of people are becoming wary of cooking with products made from kerosene or petroleum products or paraffin.

So not only do your products reduce pollutants during manufacturing, and on an environmental scale thanks to the cleaner-burning flame, but also that the food itself being cooked over a flame from your logs potentially contains fewer unhealthy chemicals associated with petroleum combustion! But let me change the focus a bit now to the collection of your raw materials. I'm guessing you don't go house to house visiting everyone in the neighbourhood to pick up the leftover grounds from their morning coffee, so what type of producer are you picking up the coffee from?

Right now, we have two important partners. The first is called Cèdre. It is a company that is a leader in the Île-de-France region for the collection and sorting of tertiary waste, which means all the waste generated by companies, office buildings, places like that. Anything that is plastic, paper, cardboard, ink cartridges, masks, they collect it all. They have a very large waste collection network and coffee grounds are among the many items they collect from their customers. That makes it possible to consolidate the collection volumes and to recover fairly large quantities. We also are partnered with another company called “Good Daily'', that belongs to the same group as Cèdre. This company sets up snack and coffee stations in offices and businesses, and collects its own grounds. I also have a vending machine partner for those big automatic machines where you put in 30 cents to get your cup of coffee.

For several years now, European regulations have forced waste generators to find recycling channels. So automatic vending machine companies, who very quickly generate large quantities of waste coffee grounds, have an obligation to find channels for recycling and reusing these products. And so, there is a company that is located 500 meters from us, who have expressed their interest.

Our last big partner is Nespresso, which in France recovers 28% of capsules sold. I think that 28% is already a lot, but they are discouraged because they have done a lot of advertising, they try to communicate thoroughly on the recycling of capsules and yet they have a lot of trouble increasing the quantity of capsules recovered. In Switzerland on the other hand, they recover 95% which is absolutely colossal, but here in France it’s only 28%. They take the used capsules and crush them, they separate out the aluminum and recycle it, which has a big value on the market today, and this generates a lot of coffee grounds. From what they generate I collect only a small part.

Any strategy where I leave with my bike and I go around all the bars and restaurants in Paris to collect coffee grounds is absolutely not viable, not economically and even less ecologically. In fact, this is a reflection of all economic models concerning waste management. One of the keys to these models is really the standardization of the waste collection to avoid having to transport it over many kilometers, so it is really fundamental to this type of economic model. And to add value to the waste! I give you an example: 20 or 30 years ago here in France, we had open-air recycling centers for used tires, there were tires pretty much everywhere, there were mountains of tires that you would see in the countryside at the time. They were worth nothing, no one wanted them. Then, little by little, recycling channels were created, and today the mechanics who change your tires will resell the used ones, those are materials that have monetary value today in a way they didn’t before.

When I started, this was a subject of immediate reflection for me, because today coffee grounds are worth nothing, but if tomorrow these channels start to develop, I have to integrate it right away. That's one reason why I went for value-added products to allow me precisely to have economic latitude at this level.

OK, well I think my final question would be about the impressions of consumers when they hear that the product is made with spent coffee grounds. Are people hesitant? Are they excited? How do clients react when they see this ubiquitous, everyday waste product that is being used in a new context?

They are always hyper skeptical; they are convinced at first that it doesn’t work! Well, no, truthfully, it's more like they find the claim surprising and they want to see it for themselves. When I tell them it's made from coffee grounds, they always ask, are coffee grounds even flammable? When they try the products, they're often pleasantly surprised when they see how well it performs.

And it's true, coffee grounds are unusual compared to other types of waste in the sense that we are comfortable with them, and the idea of reusing them, we know already that we can do many things with coffee grounds, there are some who put it in their plants, there are some who make exfoliating scrubs with coffee grounds, some people put it down the drain because they say it cleans the pipes, we even read the future in the coffee grounds! So, yes, there's a certain affection for coffee grounds compared to other waste like old tires, ink cartridges, or used face masks. Here, there is a good feeling that we do not get with other, more unpleasant types of waste, which probably also creates a familiarity with the product that we don't have with other products.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Valérie!

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