Video by RENEE ARNDT


Everybody loves a good coffee in Melbourne, but do our cafe’s really know the damaging environmental effect this addiction has? We investigate the need for recycling coffee grounds and how sustainable companies are helping cafe’s change their businesses for the better. 

Words by RENEE ARNDT & VICTORIA LIM (Yi Hui)

It’s 7am and your day is about to begin, this early wakeup call can only be made better with your trusty companion, coffee. The aroma is so intense with roasting coffee beans swirled with foamed milk. You choose your personalized mix; a tall black, skinny latte, baby cap with one sugar. All made with the same ingredient, ground coffee beans. But your hot delicious pick me up is not the only end product of this morning ritual, something much worse is forming as you grab your coffee to go.

Melbournians send 8500 tons of coffee ground waste to landfill every year and an estimation of 1 billion coffee cups each year, equating to around 60,000 kilograms of plastic waste annually.

Planet ark, a not-for-profit environmental organisation states, “When spent coffee grounds are sent to landfill they can produce methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

But Planet Ark believes spent coffee grounds have a potential much greater than the bin, “Spent coffee grounds have high nutrient levels, making them suitable for use in low-cost composting. Successful techniques used for coffee grounds include vermicomposting, aerated static composting and mechanical in-vessel composting.”

A recent survey conducted in Melbourne found that out of 100 cafes, only 38% knew that coffee grounds going to landfill had harmful effects on the ozone layer. Although, 85% knew that spent coffee grounds can be recycled into fertiliser, only 54% were recycling their coffee grounds still leaving 46% going straight to landfill.

When you’re waiting for your coffee to be made, a familiar knocking sound is heard as the barrister bangs the portafilter to empty the coffee grounds into what the industry calls as a ‘knockbox.’ The content of knockbox could be sent to anything from an organic bin to a garbage bin. But there is one Melbourne company providing a solution to all bins and giving spent coffee grounds a greater purpose.

Reground is a new Melbourne business offering organic waste management services for your spent coffee grounds. Reground collects your coffee ground waste and connects it to people who are using it in their composts and gardens.

Founder Ninna Larsen has built the foundation on a simple and easy process of connecting your organic waste matter with someone who wants it.

“We give them (Cafe) a bin when they sign up, we leave the bin and we pick that up depending how big they are as a café, how much coffee they go through… We collect all the bins directly by driving around in a van and we take them to the end users. Every bin run, we have organised an end user who is a home gardener or a community garden.”

Ms Larsen bought the first bin in December 2014 and since then has grown the business to having 23 clients whom she collects coffee grounds from.

“We’ve grown quite a lot, back in September last year, Kaitlin came on, so our team has grown from 1 person, myself; to now two people, so we’ve doubled! We went from a sole trader, which was how I was getting money back then and now we are a PTY LTD which means that there is more security for us and we are a real business now which is amazing… This year we’ve crowdfunded for a van because now we are renting a van, so that will be such a beautiful transition for us.”

Pippa James owner of Tivoli Bakery, has been working with reground for six months and said it has helped their sustainable waste efforts and very easy to manage.

“We installed a closed loop system last year so we could start composting our food waste. We found that we often had too much for our machine to manage, and that the coffee grounds unbalanced the compost. Then we heard about Reground and looked into it. It just made sense for us.”

Ms James spends $150 a month on Reground and said spending this money is the way to building an environmentally aware business plan.

“We have made a conscious decision to invest more in sustainable waste management. We could save loads of money if we didn’t compost or recycle coffee grounds, but it would be harder to sleep at night!”

Ms Larsen said Reground is based on a monthly subscription fee and has no lock in contracts, which is something that is different to other waste removal companies.

“We rely on you understanding our message and supporting our cause and understanding that you’re a part of a bigger movement and we’re not just about your money and want to secure three years in advance. It also keeps us doing a better job everyday because we have to work hard for them for them to like us.

“We are very flexible, we are a small business and small businesses should be flexible with how we engage with our clients because the whole thing with us is that we are trying to make it mainstream. We are trying to get as many cafés on board so that we can get the price down.”

However, costs like this can be a deterrent. Out of the cafes surveyed, 78% were for working with reground, with a remaining 22% cited reasons such as being an unneeded expense to the business and not enough space for not signing up.

Adam Makris owner of 57 Café in Mount Waverley said it would be a tough decision to make to incur a bill for recycling services.

“Businesses are here to make profits and you wouldn’t want to add extra expenses if you can simply put it in the bin or give it away to customers, I know that sounds bad if you are caring about the environment but it’s the fact.

Another issue would probably be the storage space for the coffee grounds and how convenient it is for us because I wouldn’t have the space to store one or two weeks’ worth of coffee grounds.”

However Ms Larsen believes that Reground services can save cafes money by reducing the need for other waste services.

“If they look at their prices and they look at their waste stream, even just do a little bit of research into studying their waste, then you would have more recycling than waste. General waste is the most expensive bin you have at all, so you should eliminate that but people think it’s like a back up.

Most cafes only have cardboard and recycling, milk bottles, so I think cafes that are really sensitive on price, they should study their waste and spend a bit of time and a bit of energy optimising that because they could easily then afford reground…They would then be diverting it to great use and then they would probably have less toxic waste so they wouldn’t have any waste ending in landfill, or very minimal. And that’s something you can feel really good about to.”

With café owners wanting to help the environment but not willing or able to front the costs, local councils and state governments may have a role to play in making recycling a higher priority in policy making.

Mr Makris said this should be a government initiative, “Instead of the coffee shop owners paying for it, the government could pay Reground for the services that they provide, it has to be a win-win situation.”

Ms James also said that waste management needs to be regulated further, “It should be easier to recycle properly. For example, I think it’s dubious how much co-mingled recycling actually gets recycled. There needs to be more education about it.”

But in order to call for a change in government policy, there needs to be evidence of commitment from cafes.

Ms Larsen said that once they have enough cafe’s working with them there will be more of an opportunity to prove to the governments and councils that the industry is calling for change.

“We are really trying to create a movement so the more cafes we have the more people and cases I can go to the government and say, ‘look how many businesses in your council or your state that are demanding change.’ Because in Australia we only have 3 composting facilities and it is ridiculous, there is actually no place we can bring this organic waste to turn it into a resource… And so we need to create this movement and come together as an industry collectively to show that there is a use and a need for change and that’s why even small cafes have that massive voice in a business like reground.”

Waste management is the pivotal issue surrounding the whole industry; not just coffee grounds, disposable coffee cups are also a virulent form of pollution.

Do not be fooled by these harmless-looking disposable coffee cups. Coffee cups are in fact the second-largest contributor to litter, right after plastic bottles. Australians consume over 6 billion cups of coffee annually, and it is estimated that at least 1 billion disposable paper coffee cups are thrown away each year.

They are often coated with a non-biodegradable polyethylene lining, which makes them waterproof and more durable but also prevents the paper from being recyclable. Only 51% of the 100 Melbourne cafés surveyed had 100% recyclable coffee cups, leaving 49% sadly with customers littering throughout Melbourne.

Richard Fine founder of biodegradable coffee cup manufacturer BioPak, decided to make his business sustainable through creating 100% recyclable takeaway products.

BioPak produces a variety of coffee cups, but with one important caveat; they are, as the name implies, 100% biodegradable.

To produce their paper cups, BioPak uses Pulp – a lignocellulosic fibrous material prepared chemically or mechanically separating cellulose fibres from wood, fibre crops or waste paper. Since it is produced from recycled materials, it can be recycled again after use.

In comparison to a regular coffee cup that will not decompose for 30 years, Mr Fine said, “In a commercial compost, the BioCups will completely biodegrade within 120 days.”

But again, looking after the environment doesn’t come cheap. BioCups are priced at the higher than your non-recyclable. Mr Fine said, “They are up to 30% more expensive than regular PE (Polyethylene) coated paper cups.”

This prohibitive price may be the reason why café owners are unwilling to invest in BioCups. Many owners would rather foot the environmental cost of using regular PE cups, instead of paying a premium price for biodegradable cups.

Mr Fine said that governments and local councils need to look at other countries environmental policy for a brighter future. “Governments and local councils need to follow countries like France who have banned the use of plastic for single use food service disposable packaging. Once the playing field is level then there is no option but to use compostable packaging.”

Biopak is also in the initial stages of producing a closed loop business model, “We are now partnering with compost facilities and investing in compost infrastructure so that we can offer our clients a closed loop solution and divert our packaging from landfill. We will continue to lead the industry and introduce more innovative packaging solutions made from rapidly renewable resources.”

Biopak and Reground are businesses both looking for a better solution to fight the war on waste, but they need stronger support from consumers to follow their lead.

Ms Larsen believes that to build a better future, all businesses need to have sustainability at the top of their ethics.

“You don’t have to be with reground, you just have to be with something that’s not the big guys because they are just logistics that don’t care about where it ends, that’s what we are trying to change. I’ve seen waste removal companies put general waste and recycling in the same bin, essentially in to landfill.

“But if you have someone that genuinely cares about where it is going or who has a real kind of use for that at the end you wouldn’t have a problem with people doing that lazy behaviour again.”

Ms Larson believes that Reground will positively impact the world by spreading the right message. She has high hopes that it will not only be an international business five years from now but also an inspiration to new and uprising companies.

“Our business will never be about profits that’s not the language that we speak, our success is in terms of impact and how much good we have done for this world. 5 years from now I think Reground is a national business if not international, we will have created a model for business in general that can be replicated and used to inspire other business that can do not exactly the same but they can do it with a different industry and different focus.”