The Zero Waste Coffee Project

Upcycling our spent coffee grounds: from excess to energy

spent coffee grounds Happy Goat coffee biogas
A research project between Happy Goat Coffee Company and the University of Ottawa (January – April 2021)

Imagine if the power you need to boil the water for your morning coffee is produced by the same coffee grounds that you dispose of after your coffee is brewed. Or, that your car ran on the same fuel as you do — that cup of joe that gets you up and out the door on the wildest of mornings.

According to a recent collaboration between a Master of Business Administration consulting team from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and Happy Goat Coffee Company, the spent coffee grounds that are left over from your morning brew, could be sustainably upcycled and used as a source of energy to power other vital instruments in our lives, such as our cars or homes.

How is this possible?

Through a type of energy production known as biogas. The consulting team ranked a total of three possible uses for spent coffee grounds that would keep them out of the landfill and into a circular economy. When compared side by side with pyrolysis and composting, it was biogas that came out on top as the most sustainable, achievable and cost-effective solution to saving waste in coffee production.

With several cafes and their own roastery, spent coffee grounds and other organic wastes from their commercial kitchen are an abundant by-product of the daily operation at Happy Goat Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster in Ottawa. Instead of sending these useful by-products to the landfill, Happy Goat wants to be able to upcycle these valuable resources in an effort that will eventually lead them to their goal of producing a zero-waste coffee.

What is biogas?

Biogas is created when organic waste, from sources such as crops, livestock, food waste and water waste, is broken down by bacteria in an oxygen-free environment. This process produces biogas, which is part methane and part carbon dioxide, and digestate, which can be used to improve soil conditions.

Once captured, biogas can produce heat or be converted to electricity. It can also be made into biomethane and used as fuel for our vehicles.  

Why not just compost?

The consulting team used three categories to evaluate the potential upcycling options: environmental impact, governance and cost, and feasibility and risk. 

Out of five possible points, on site and off site composting scored a 3.45 and 3.95 respectively, while biogas scored a winning 4.24. The logistics of composting, including where to process the waste and what to do with it once decomposed, as well as the cost of new equipment or staff to undertake this operation, were the main contributors to its slightly lower score overall.

Pyrolysis, a type of thermal decomposition, was the other upcycling option explored, but it scored a total of 2.25 due to its high cost, complicated logistics and extended payback period.

With a perfect score in the environmental category and a leader in the governance category, the consulting team from UOttawa came to the conclusion that biogas was the best option for a small company like Happy Goat Coffee to explore moving forwards. Their final report also stated that the only option less risky and more attainable than biogas, was to stick to the status quo and continue with the current, unsustainable trends.

Next Steps

Currently, Happy Goat Coffee sends all of its organic kitchen waste to a local farm and its spent coffee grounds are diverted to a landfill. Not only is the latter not sustainable, but it’s also costly for the company.

Looking to the future, several steps have been outlined by the consulting team from UOttawa for Happy Goat to pursue.

First, Happy Goat will re-assess how much organic waste it produces and seek out other local businesses who might be willing to partner with them in their biogas venture. Once they have an estimate of how much and how often enough waste will be produced for a shipment, the next step is to find a biogas plant willing to accept their waste. Ten possible plants in the Ottawa area were outlined by the consulting team. Finally, the company must reach out to a hauling company capable of transporting their waste to the chosen biogas plant.

Biogas could be the next big step towards head roaster, Hans Langenbahn’s, dream of creating a zero-waste coffee. According to the consulting team’s report, this choice to upcycle spent coffee grounds will help save the environment, produce energy for other daily activities and encourage collaboration between local businesses that could lead to even more widespread sustainability.

Pippa Norman is a journalism student entering into her third year of studies at Carleton University/Ottawa (2021)