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Organic Food Waste in Brooklyn Part 1: Coffee

We talked to the owner of a local cafe about how much waste is generated in his store. What we learned will shock you.

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

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Introduction

Brooklyn is filled with quaint cafes with evocative names reminiscent of magical summer evenings on coastal Italian villages. Brooklyn also brims with cutting edge coffee labs where tattooed geniuses conjure up immaculate brews worthy of an instagram post. The cafe I regularly go to is neither of those. Unimaginatively named Nostrand cafe, it sits on the corner of its namesake avenue and Lafayette in Bed-Stuy. Originally, it served only a selection of coffee and pastries when it opened in April this year. Recently, the owner, Jiwon Choe expanded to serve Korean food, with kimchi and bulgogi on the menu.

Not a very creative signboard

The 900-square-foot business opens at 7 in the morning, and closes at 8 PM. Jiwon is there the whole time, every day of the week. He always stresses on the importance of an owner knowing and being involved in every aspect of the business. He's the receptionist, waiter and barista, and he's very proud of his cold brew made from Mexican coffee that he spends hours fussing over. Along with his witty jokes and the ample working space, the cold brew is one of the reasons I go to the cafe regularly.

Cold brew drip

Last week, I decided to talk to him about food waste and how he deals with it. After introducing the background of the OpenIDEO challenge, we had a ~ 15 minute conversation.

Interview

Me: So, where's your trash can?

Jiwon: What do you mean? It's right there. You're standing next to it.

Me: Sorry, not that one. Where's YOUR trash can? The one you use behind the counter?

Jiwon: Ok, I got it. There's no can here though, I have a large plastic bin under this counter right here. There's also a couple of trash cans in the kitchen.

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Me: Is there different kinds of trash in each receptacle? Can we look through it?

Jiwon: Sure, the trash can on your side of the counter is usually empty. That's because I only use paper cups when someone wants to take their coffee outside. If you're having coffee here, I give it to you in a proper cup.

Me: You do that to reduce waste?

Jiwon: And to save costs. Paper cups cost money. It's cheaper to just wash these in the kitchen.

Me: What kind of waste do you get in the kitchen?

Jiwon: Not much, we don't cook a lot here. A lot of the food is made elsewhere and we mostly just assemble it here. Korean food has a lot of pickled ingredients, and we don't sell a lot of it. We buy the pastries from a bakery nearby. Most of our waste is packaging.

Me: What about organic waste?

Jiwon: Most of the organic waste is from the coffee. You have no idea how much of it we have to go through each week.

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Me: So how much do you think?

Jiwon: Let's see, this is a gallon container, and I empty it about twice a day.

Me: And it's all the same coffee?

Jiwon: Well, it's the same beans, but three different grinds. Regular coffee uses a coarse grind, so that's about 1 to 1.5 mm particle size. Espresso needs a very fine grind, and that's about 0.2 mm. Cold brew needs an in-between grind, so about .6 to .75 mm. 

Me: What do you do with the coffee grounds?

Jiwon: Throw it in the trash! What else can I do with it?

Me: In the regular trash?

Jiwon: No, I can't just leave it out, I'll get a ticket for that. I have a commercial license, so I have to pay for private hauling?

Me: And they take it to the dump for you? How much do you pay for that?

Jiwon: $120 a week. It's a rip off. 

Me: Yikes.

Jiwon: It's the cost of doing business. What else can I do with it?

Me: Give it to me, I'll take some.

Jiwon: What? What are you going to do with it?

Me: I don't know, I'll figure it out.

Jiwon grabs a 1 gallon ziploc bag and fills it with coffee grounds while shaking his head disapprovingly.

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Synthesis

I weighed the bag at home and it was about 2 kilograms. Considering that he produces two gallons of coffee grounds each day, that would mean that he produces 4 kgs a day.

That's almost 30 kgs a week.

That's around 1.5 tons a year.

There are more than 1700 cafes in New York, a quarter of which is in Brooklyn.

That's 637.5 tons of coffee grounds in Brooklyn each year.

And this is considering a lazy coffee shop in a residential neighborhood. Imagine what a downtown Starbucks produces.

Is there something we can do with coffee grounds instead of dumping it in landfills?


What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

That little cafe near your house could be producing a minimum of 3 tons of organic waste each year. Most of it, if not all, go to landfills. It costs the cafe thousands of dollars per year in disposal expenditure. Are there alternative uses for spent coffee grounds that we can discover ? We need to think of the broader picture when it comes to food waste by also including organic byproducts.

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm working with a group of NYU students & alumni who are fascinated with the idea of industrial symbiosis: turning the byproduct of one industry into the raw material of another.

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Photo of Kaitlin Mogentale

I've been wanting to find ways to work with coffee grounds too! For now, I've been working with juice pulp (a huge source of food waste in Los Angeles). For every bottle of juice made, there's about 4 lbs of produce in the 16oz glass. So, about 75% of the initial vegetables used go to waste. If a juicery were producing say 200 bottles of juice, that means there's around 800 pounds of produce that goes trashed! It's crazy.  Check out my entry here too - https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-waste/ideas/meet-pulp-pantry-reincarnating-juice-pulp-beyond/

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