Coffee starts the day for billions of people over the world, but very few consider what happens to the waste from each cup. As it happens, coffee grounds are an excellent base material for clean biofuels, and a good alternative for fossil fuels. Arthur Kay, the founder and CEO of bio-bean, recognised that this waste could easily become a sustainable resource for biofuels.

Every day, the world consumes nearly 1.5 billion cups of coffee. Those billions of cups of coffee create 25 million metric tons of coffee-ground waste every year, leading to 90 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. While studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, London, Kay was working on a project on closed-loop systems. He was designing a coffee shop and found himself becoming interested in waste management, after realising that coffee was being wasted everywhere. That’s how, in 2013, he founded bio-bean, which takes coffee-ground waste and recycles it into advanced biofuels.

One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure

This is how it works. The coffee grounds are collected from over 300 factories, offices, transport hubs, restaurants and coffee shops by existing waste collection companies (so as not to add more trucks to the road) and brought to bio-bean’s plant, just outside London. There, the grounds are processed into biofuels and biomass pellets, coffee logs, and in the near future liquid fuels and chemicals. Those pellets are sold to companies, hospitals and supermarket chains to heat their buildings, as a carbon-neutral alternative to imported biomass pellets, the vast majority of which come from Eastern Europe and North America.

Bio-bean is not just a green initiative; it makes commercial sense as well. “First and foremost it is a for-profit environmental enterprise designed to save money for all the stakeholders in the supply chain,” says Kay. For example, the biomass pellets can be used in the same boilers used for wooden logs, so there is no need to change existing infrastructure. Similarly, the savings on “gate fees” that waste collection companies have to pay to send their rubbish to landfill sites are passed back to the businesses the waste originally came from. Bio-bean cuts these costs for everyone, so the bigger the company, the bigger the savings and the bigger the environmental impact. Sir Richard Branson has called it a “superb business idea.” This didn’t mean it was smooth sailing the minute they went into business. “The waste-management industry is dominated by a few large companies, not necessarily a welcome environment for start-ups,” says Kay.

Partners and clients

“Besides, the infrastructure and logistics in place for our current waste management have been well developed throughout the years. In the beginning, we were in a tough position because we needed buy-in from local businesses as well as waste management companies to pull this off. Similarly, we needed high volumes in order to be significant, which meant contacting larger companies. But at the same time we still needed to iron out the logistics in order to be able to handle large volumes. On paper, the idea and business plan look like a win-win opportunity for everyone involved – and they are – but it was still quite difficult to get all the partners, and specifically the larger companies, on board. We had to focus all our time and energy into fostering and setting up partnerships.”

For Kay, the biggest achievement has thus been taking it from a concept two-and-a-half years ago to reality. “Hopefully, our cities will be powered by our waste in the future” says Kay. “Cities can never be completely powered by coffee, but there are many other organic waste products that can be processed into biofuels. By looking at waste as a valuable resource, the challenges of urbanization can actually prove to be opportunities.”

Carbon footprint

Recycling one ton of coffee grounds can save as much as seven tonnes in CO2 emissions, the equivalent of driving a car from Amsterdam to Beijing and back— twice. Currently, bio-bean recycles about 50,000 metric tons of coffee grounds annually, which is 10 percent of the UK’s yearly coffee waste. International expansion is on the agenda as well, but bio-bean is currently focusing on the UK.

Bio-bean will shortly start producing biodiesel from the coffee grounds as well. “The biodiesel can be used to power public transportation,” explains Kay.

At home, you probably won’t be tempted to throw biomass pellets into your fireplace. So when looking for a more direct consumer-facing product – which would increase both fame and fortune –, bio-bean developed biomass briquettes called coffee logs, complete with a faint aroma of coffee. These fuels are suitable for a range of appliances including wood burning stoves, chimneys, open fires and BBQs.

Winning the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in 2014 was crucial for bio-bean, because it allowed Kay to attract and hire a team of experts and start the first small-scale production. “Unfortunately it’s not very difficult to spend 500,000 euros when you’re building a factory” he explains, “but it’s not just the money that the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge has helped us with. Just participating introduced us to a fantastic network of inspirational people.”