Cows, coffee and a bit of creativity: where food waste and circular economy come together

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June 23, 2014 by Tess Riley

Starbucks. I may not be their biggest fan, but they do seem to have hit on something with the potential to make a noticeable difference to the sustainability of coffee outlets the world over.

I’m talking about cow food. Not just any food, however, but that made from waste coffee grinds from Starbucks stores. Although reluctant to give me many figures, the Starbucks spokesperson I interviewed was able to tell me enough to write a briefing for Green Futures mag on the subject. You can find the article on GF’s website here, or pasted below for your enjoyment…

Three things before we get to that though:

1) just because I think this could make a difference to the volume of waste Starbucks produces, I’m most certainly not endorsing their tax/human rights/animal rights/corporate practices. This article is about one thing and one thing only: food waste.

2) profuse apologies for not posting recently. I’ve been turning out articles as usual, but had less time than normal to blog them. I therefore have a small backlog that I will attempt to drip-feed over coming weeks alongside my usual posts. Don’t get too excited now.

3) If you enjoyed this post, why not share the love and pass it on. I’ll never make it as Editor of the Guardian unless I get a little more popular apart from anything else. I jest, but I do like sharing good ideas, so if you think this is one worth passing on, get forwarding (and thanks!)

Ok, so onto the good stuff…

Over one hundred Starbucks coffeehouses across Japan are transforming waste coffee beans into feed for dairy cows – and buying back their milk

It’s never too latte to up your game – a point Starbucks is milking with the introduction of a system that turns waste coffee grounds into cattle feed. Not just any feed indeed, but that given to the cattle producing milk for coffees in over one hundred Starbucks coffeehouses across Japan. With over half the world’s grain currently used to feed livestock, the Food Recycling Loop is a great example of a closed-loop approach returning valuable nutrients into productive use in the food system.

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“Tackling food waste is critical to fixing our broken food system”, says Fiona Dawson, Senior Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future. “1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted throughout the world every year. We can’t eat coffee grounds, so it’s exciting to see a technology that seems to be turning coffee grounds into nutritious cattle feed – previously this has been off limits, even in countries like the US that permit feeding of food waste to animals.”

The process is a relatively simple one: waste coffee bean cakes are collected from Starbucks outlets in Kanto and Kansai in trucks which are already delivering chilled products to the Japanese coffeehouses, minimising storage and transport costs as well as carbon emissions. They are then dehydrated, processed using a lactic acid fermentation technique, and turned into a substance which can be fed to cattle or be used as compost fertiliser. The resultant milk and vegetables are used either as ingredients for beverages and sandwiches served in Starbucks stores, or sold by other food businesses in the Greater Tokyo Area. At present, there are no immediate plans to expand the programme beyond Japan.

“The programme gives us an opportunity to be part of an innovative solution in this particular community when it comes to recycling used coffee grounds”, says a spokesperson for Starbucks. “It has received two certifications for food recycling under the Law for Promotion of Recycling and Related Activities for the Treatment of Cyclical Food Resources, and is the first recycling loop ever certified in Japan where coffee grounds are recycled as feed and fertiliser. Customer feedback on the milk has been positive, and it meets the high standards we have for all Starbucks ingredients.”

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded products, with global production totalling approximately 131.1 million 60kg bags between 2010-2011 according to the International Trade Centre. Traditionally, concerns over sustainability have focused on the front end of the supply chain, from Fair Trade status to soil conditions. High volumes of coffee ground waste however, combined with factors such as the rising cost of landfill, greater environmental awareness and ongoing research into innovative sources for fuels and food, means that solutions to the back end of the chain such as the Food Recycling Loop are starting to emerge.

“Starbucks have had pretty bad press to date where social and environmental responsibility is concerned”, says Dotti Irving, CEO of Four Colman Getty Campaigning and Culture. “The Food Recycling Loop project has the potential not only to enable Starbucks to reduce its environmental impact, but also to begin to build its profile as a brand making tangible steps towards better practice across the supply chain.”

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