When you talk about specialty coffee, some terms come to mind instantly such as “fair trade”, “ecologic”, “sustainable” and quite a few more. We usually visualize that nice landscape of farms in South America or Africa with steep cultures of coffee in the mountains, then the nice shiny roasting machine and finally the coffee extracted to perfection in a minimalist cafeteria where everybody is happy and ecological.
But is the whole chain of specialty coffee really sustainable? Do cafeterias, final contact point with the customer along with roasters, have been doing its part to ensure sustainability? Perhaps not, and most of the time because it “has been done like this for ages”, turning into something based in “common sense”. The effort it needs to leave the comfort zone may seem huge at first, but there are ways out of it.
In this article, we will be talking about the eight best changes in a specialty coffee shop to ensure and enforce a more sustainable path aimed at the final consumer. Please note we aren’t, in any way, criticizing cafeterias that still haven’t adopted any of these alternatives. Instead, we are simply offering a pleasant read for shop owners and customers on how to reduce the footprint of their cup of specialty coffee and the place where it’s been made.
I love the sustainability theme, but I really needed help on that matter, so I have reached Claudia Barea, co-founder of Slow Fashion and Co: A Barcelona-based project on the promotion of circular economy in the fashion industry. She’s also a sustainability and zero waste enthusiast and a specialty coffee lover. She helped me in finding ways and alternatives for many steps and stages where waste is generated, and where it can be avoided or minimized. After that, I also invited Eric Ramon to team up with us. He graduated in Chemistry with a specialization in polymers and has worked in several national and European projects related to biobased plastics and plastic recyclability. Moreover, he’s also a specialty coffee freak and now owner of a specialty coffee roasting brand named ALLWAYS COFFEE, that has many issues on sustainability been taken care of!
FIRST CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – USAGE OF CUPS AND ITS MATERIALS
Standard cups are made from blended materials such as plastic and paper, which make them practically impossible to separate and recycle. Although easy to handle and quite cheap for cafeterias (0.10 Euro/unit), those cups can be very damaging to the environment as they will not decompose. This might be one of the higher volumes of waste generated by coffeeshops, especially those that have mostly a takeaway clientele.
You can also find some compostable cups in the market with great thermal stability and a better option to nature than those regular ones cited above. Nevertheless, we know that compostable materials need to be discarded in a specific way in order to accelerate the process. Otherwise, it will end up becoming useless as any other regular waste.
Finally, we have the option of a reusable cup. And for that, there are quite a lot of options for us. One of them is to encourage customers to bring their own cups. There are many cafeterias and places in Barcelona offering a discount when you bring your own coffee cup (usually 10 cents, which in practical terms is the amount saved by not using a disposable cup). It works well, but we would suggest the discount to be a little higher, as a way to encourage more people to start doing so. Internal communication can also work very well, for example showing people how much they can save up monthly and yearly, or how much less waste would be generated by using reusable cups after a year on a daily basis. It can be really shocking and effective!
The second way, and in my opinion a genius option is: getting a reusable cup by leaving a value as a safety deposit and being able to exchange it among a network of partner restaurants and cafeterias. There are many companies and startups doing so in Barcelona. One of them is REVASO. Another awesome project is REUSABOL (although this one offers food containers instead of cups). And one of my favorites is the award-winning HUSKEE CUP, which sells beautifully made reusable cups made of coffee husks.
In conclusion: encourage one or more models of reusable cup usage among your clientele. And, if there is no way to escape from single-use cups, try to use compostable ones and charge an extra for it (letting clients know in advance). For orders within the coffeeshop, use ceramic cups. And if a customer brings their own cup, congratulate them and offer a discount or a bonus.
SECOND CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – ROASTER COFFEE SUPPLY PACKING
When buying or selecting the roaster you will buy from, it is very interesting to look at how packaging is chosen in the company. The traditional way is still packages made with triple-layer materials that, again, are impossible to be separated and, therefore, recycled. Just like with disposable cups, there are compostable alternatives for coffee packaging, But unfortunately, they have the exact same problem as coffee cups in terms of material decomposition.In this case, an alternative would be storing coffee in bigger wholesale containers like FAMILIA OSORIO or ANIMAL COFFEE do. Some companies in Barcelona have been innovating by offering a packaging returning service, selling coffee to final consumers in hermetically closed metal cans of 250 grams, for example, 80 PLUS. NOMAD COFFEE recently took a big step in consumer packaging development by coming up with a reusable sack by JULIA ESQUE, a local crafter and BASORA, a local design studio. With this sack, you can buy your beans in bulk and have it refilled once you run out of coffee. SLOWMOV, on the other hand, found a midway alternative, having found a Canadian supplier of coffee packs that has a biodegradable material that goes away in nature at the same time as a fruit peel: 6 months! And they have a very interesting blog post about the differences between COMPOSTABLE and BIODEGRADABLE.
In conclusion: prioritize local roasters who store their product in wholesale coffee containers, and encourage them to adopt either compostable, reusable or 100% recyclable final sale packages.
In the photos below you can see some examples of Barcelonian companies who have been doing a great job at it:
THIRD CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – SHOP LOCAL
We understand sometimes we might fall for a coffee from a roastery from the other side of the Atlantic because a fellow coffee lover introduced us to it. Or maybe we tried the best coffee in the world during a trip, and we want to have it in our coffee shop for everyone to try. But let’s not make that our norm. Having excellent roasteries within the Spanish market (like the ones mentioned in the previous section), what’s the point of looking anywhere else for a good product? Considering the high carbon footprint of coffee as a product (of the 10 to 11 pounds of carbon emissions that the average pound of coffee creates, as much as 50% is created at the retail and consumer level), we can save up so much if we choose to buy from nearby coffee roasters. Here’s a link to an amazing article on the carbon footprint of coffee along its way to the cup.
As for the coffee shop, local products should be a preference: Spain is known for its rich gastronomy abundant in vegetables, and animal protein cultivated locally and in small properties. So finding a viable option for our food and drinks menu shouldn’t be difficult. Also, by doing so, the business can assure the freshness of its products through seasonal menu releases, something customers have lately shown a preference for. Auto Rossellón and Väcka are two of many examples of establishments prioritizing locally bought food supplies.
FOURTH CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – ENERGY SOURCES AND USAGE
Barcelona has roughly 300 days of sun every year. It is a densely populated city with many rooftop terraces. Those can be perfect spaces for solar panels. This source of energy is clean and it can save you loads of money in the long-term. Talk to the landlord of your cafeteria, they might be interested in that! And/or if you have the possibility to install it in your own place, do your research on what the best option would be. There are many companies offering such options in Barcelona, two examples are SVEA SOLAR and ENERGIA0.
However, the easiest way to actually save up energy is doing the basics: choose LED illumination on your shop, try to plan its architecture so you can make the most of the sunlight, give priority to air circulation and, if not possible, buy A/C equipment that has inverter technology, which makes them up to 70% more efficient than regular ones. You can also get used to unplugging your kitchen gadgets when the coffee shop is closed, or check out different types of commercial dishwashers.
Finally, we could not let our dear espresso machines aside on this subject! As we all know, the voltage used in espresso machines is very high and is responsible for a lot of energy expenditure in coffee shops. Nowadays, new technologies developed by certain brands can save you a huge amount of energy at the end of the month. That is the case of IBERITAL´s VISION model, for example. It is the most awarded product in its category within Europe for its sustainability. Iberital is a local brand, and their machines do not contain any heavy metals (which are extremely damaging for the environment). Also, they can be connected to the Internet, which can help prevent many potential visits from a technician. Another great attribute of Iberital’s machines is their capability to achieve the desired temperature by mixing cold and very hot water at the end of the process. That way, not having to keep different compartments heated up when the movement has its lows in the coffee shop. Besides, the brand’s factory is extremely sustainable, which is always a plus. For example, every single liter of water they use is reused by default. Their office has only one printer for over 100 employees and it rarely uses artificial light, as it has an optimal exposure to sunlight.
FIFTH CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – REUSE COFFEE GROUNDS IN MULTIPLE WAYS
Coffee grounds are extremely versatile, do you know they can have over 20 different uses? Unfortunately, most of the time they end up being thrown away. An extremely easy and very popular use is as a plant fertilizer, being purely organic matter as it is. You can give it a try on the plants in your coffee shop (be reasonable though, too much ground coffee can be damaging) and, eventually, give them away among customers who might be interested in them. Remember to spread the word it, though! It won’t only help you in terms of exposure and image, but it can also encourage potential new visits or other shops to do the same. LA BAR and CAMELIA ART CAFE in Barcelona are two cases of cafeterias who have implemented this new habit.
There are many other uses you can give to coffee grounds. For example, they can work as compost raw material, drain cleaner, deodorant or facial scrub. Here are two great articles about it for further reference.
SIXTH CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – TEACH BY EXAMPLE AND SHARE WHAT YOU DO
Sometimes people can be perceived as “posers” if/when sharing content on sustainability or good deeds on social media. However, we might forget that doing so is a way to encourage others to do the same. Many times people have the willpower to change habits, but they don’t know where to start. Sometimes people know how to actually change their habits, but over the days they end up forgetting about it and quitting. That’s why the scope of a coffee shop in terms of social media (and face-to-face) behavior is so important: use it to inspire customers and/or followers into adopting a more sustainable lifestyle.
You may also share aspects of your daily basis life, if you are applying sustainability. For example, if you use reusable bags to go shopping. We are perceiving many habit changes in people’s lives that can have great impact. Recently I discovered BOLSETA, which produces reusable washable fruit bags: to replace those many plastic bags in fruit shops and supermarkets that are so damaging once you will probably only use it one time!
SEVENTH CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – APPLY THE SAME “PACKAGING CONCEPT” FOR ALL YOUR PRODUCTS!
As you probably know, most coffee shops these days can’t be run by selling only coffee!
Surely, they also offer food options, juices, teas or water. And all of these can also be sold in a “super trendy” packaging with an awesome design. However, the best way to proceed in this case is avoiding any packed product as much as possible (those that need to be packed that way for conservation reasons). For example, how you serve mineral water in your coffee shop: Water in plastic bottles, water in glass bottles or filtered tap water. This case is the most convenient one, as it will help you reduce a big amount of unnecessary multilayered waste. DALSTON COFFEE has a great osmotic water fountain in its tiny charming shop. Following this simple rule with all your purchases will help your business become more sustainable!
Fun fact: have you ever seen water sold in cartons? Knowing that multilayer materials cannot be recycled, and even though this type of packaging uses natural materials for their packaging (therefore, reducing their carbon footprint), we don’t think it’s the best option to aim at. Can you imagine the quantity of trees needed to create a packaging to store our water in!?
EIGHTH CHANGE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE – GET TO KNOW AND EXPLORE OTHER “GREEN COMMUNITIES”
This last section may seem weird, but there are other people with other “green projects” that can help you be more sustainable. For example, if you want to find a sustainable solution for your coffee grounds you can find some local projects that can help you (making coffee based soap, inks, compost, etc). It goes on the same mindset that we wrote above, sharing info can make you discover tons of new ways to be more sustainable.
A second example could be the selection of providers that are also sustainable doing their jobs. It is not the same if your local roaster or your local fruit or bread provider distribute your orders by bike or by van. Don’t forget to consider these details. EROICA CAFFÈ, for example, is an amazing restaurant and cafeteria located in Eixample, with great focus on the bicycle market, does all its deliveries by bike, so just picture the amount of carbon emissions saved on a yearly basis.
IN LOVE MAGAZINE is a great project where you can find tons of places, projects and people engaged with a more sustainable lifestyle. It gathers places from the most various sectors, from artisan bags, places to eat, to furniture and more! This is the kind of community we enforce you to be part of. Sometimes a furniture firm can be using some process or product that fits into your business or the other way around, it can be a place to do collaborations in markets that do not compete with each other as well.
In summary: surround yourself with sustainable people and you will get the most creative ideas from them!
I wanted to thank you guys very much, Claudia and Eric. You helped me so much with this small but lovely article. I hope that with it we can make a difference in people´s lives – even it being tiny!