The Zero Waste Coffee Project

Sustainable management of coffee by-products in Costa Rica: the case of CoopeTarrazú R.L.

The agriculture, sanitation, and waste management sectors are mainly isolated throughout the world, resulting in permanent nutrient drainage and large amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to inadequate or excessive use of fertilizers. In Costa Rica, specific questions have arisen regarding the practices and management of coffee by-products to produce compost and the data used to verify nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions generated by the coffee activity.

The pulp of coffee beans is considered a waste product on coffee plantations, usually thrown away, dumped into rivers or used as an imperfect fertilizer - with significant negative consequences for climate change and the environment. The main aim of the study "Sustainable management of coffee by-products in Costa Rica: the case of CoopeTarrazú R.L." that I carried out for my PhD was to study the possibilities of the coffee pulp and if it can be turned into quality compost, used in the coffee plantation as a soil amendment, and thus reduce the negative impact on the environment and climate.

The project was implemented in Costa Rica because, in recent decades, Costa Rica has been a pioneer in the conservation and management of natural resources. It has achieved a little more than 60% of its forest cover. Since then, the population and the private sector have been incorporating measures aimed at sustainability into their production systems. This has been the basis for innovative technologies to mitigate certain pollutants generated during specific agricultural and industrial processes. Costa Rica is part of all international agreements for climate change mitigation and is also the first country at the international level to have a national decarbonization plan.

Coopetarrazú R.L. is the largest coffee cooperative in Costa Rica. It is dedicated to producing and marketing coffee on Costa Rican land, committed to regenerative agriculture, environmental protection, and sustainable production. Although the Cooperative is a pioneer in the development of this project, not only in Costa Rica but also Central America, the concern to improve the relationship with the environment and be part of a circular economy led the Cooperative to seek tangible alternatives to mitigate the environmental impact caused by coffee pulp. For five years, this company studied alternatives and worked on coffee pulp, which was previously considered a waste. One of the projects that arose is composting, which consists in converting the pulp into organic compost. Currently, the compost is delivered among the 5000 coffee producers associated with Coffee the Mill as an organic alternative for their farmers.

However, I considered that the current process had an opportunity for optimization. Therefore, CoopeTarrazú decided to deepen the research to quantify the emissions generated by the waste by-products. It is mainly for reducing emissions and valuing the waste when it is returned to its plantations as soil amendments, promoting the circular economy approach. At the same time, emissions quantification was carried out, especially of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is the most important greenhouse gas in agriculture. Its formation is mainly due to the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

The first emission factors were obtained regarding specific agricultural emissions from the coffee pulp as a by-product. The main result of the new methodology for producing a soil amendment is the reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions by up to 75%.  

At the level N2O in coffee plantations, this project attempted to estimate N2O emission fluxes by measuring point fertilization events during the coffee fertilization cycle and the effect types of fertilizers used in coffee plantations and soil amendments. The main findings stated a strong relationship between the type of fertilizer and the period of fertilization and its N2O emissions and lower emissions using organic alternatives.

The project addressed five significant impacts directly: environmental, economic, technological, commercial, and business, without neglecting that the main objective is to obtain a product from a residue, allowing the Cooperative to initiate a bio-economy as a basis for sustainable development while is providing at the same time, a waste treatment with low emissions. Furthermore, this helps promote regenerative agriculture, strengthening soil fertility, mainly increasing the microbiological, mineral, and organic matter presence.

The results are expected to generate an impact at the national and international level in applying good practices and management of coffee by-products throughout the coffee sector. The vaporization of the waste within the process and the reduction of methane emissions enhance the high-quality production of organic compost. Therefore, it will be helpful for the farmers, especially with the prices of synthetic fertilizers nowadays and in the future. Furthermore, this study promoted sustainability and waste management. Therefore, the country can produce sustainable coffee and low emissions by mitigating the primary emission sources. Therefore, it can make fundamental advances in the coffee sector to protect the environment and adapt to climate change in Costa Rica. Most importantly, with the findings of this project, the farmers will have a guide to a future national mitigation plan in the agricultural and coffee sector.

At least half of our current carbon dioxide dilemma comes from unsustainable agricultural practices, which is why change is in our hands. Healthy soil equals quality coffee, strengthening supply chains and prosperous farmers.

For more information, please contact:

M.Sc. Macarena San Martin Ruiz

+41 76 574 62 88

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