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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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12 comments

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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/

Photo of marco mihambo

Hellow! Ashwin!!!
This is one the Great article,  very concise and comprehensive.

Photo of Yuan Wang

Great job, Ashwin!!!  Very thorough, amazing. And the soap is awesome, a little scruby, use it in the kitchen everyday now. It's quick shocking to look at the numbers, how much waste coffee creates... 

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

Thanks for testing the soap Yuan, I'm glad you liked it. Can you take a picture of it as it reduces in size and disintegrates? Is there any lather? Is it too rough? Maybe it's better for feet?

Photo of Yuan Wang

Actually the soap is not too rough, but since I don't have a proper soap dish yet it gets soft easily with water (of course, it's soap.. )And yes I agreed it would be very good to have it in bigger size for body /feet scrub soap ! 

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

That's a great idea. I have a larger mould, and I can use that. 

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Ashwin.  Thanks for sharing these posts!  I am excited about your series as it looks to be very interesting and selfishly being from NYC I get to learn more about my town!  I wasn't aware of the 0x30 initiative.  https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-waste/research/organic-food-waste-in-brooklyn-part-1   I wonder how small businesses will manage the expense.  As per Jiwon private garbage collection is expensive.  I don't think there is much competition in that area, but I may be wrong.  Maybe this new initiative will help to push that.  
A quick look on Google showed quite a few things that one can use coffee grounds for.  What are you planning to do with your bag?  I wonder if Jiwon created a list of things that one could use coffee grounds for, and posted it in his cafe offering to give a bag/s to anyone who wants them, if people would take them?

Looking forward to your next installment!

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

Thanks for your post, Bettina. There does seems to be some competition among private haulers since they're basically run by people who own trucks (either as a separate transportation business or to support their own business). They ship the trash to New Jersey because the landfill in Staten Island is full. Sometimes, they have to haul it as far as Pennsylvania.

As for uses for coffee grounds, I used them to make some soap! You can check out the pictures below. I used a base of goat milk and olive oil, and used varying amounts of coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are great for exfoliation, and infinitely more environmentally friendly than plastic microbeads. To mask the smell of coffee, I added some teakwood and lemongrass essence. I poured them into moulds and let them set for a few days. Now to test them, and maybe even sell them at the cafe. I'm thinking of printing the instructions on a piece of paper and use that to wrap the soap so that people can make it at home. If there's enough interest and local participation, I can totally see the cafe turning into a zero food waste business.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BIwCASxBXzX/

https://www.instagram.com/p/BIwCEfPhCgs/

Photo of Kate Rushton

I would be interested in trying your soap. Another use for the coffee grounds could be inspired by Bio-bean - http://www.bio-bean.com/

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

Actually, it's very easy to do this. The biomass pellets are made with a pellet mill, and the logs are made with a briquetting press. A used die-extrusion pellet mill is only ~$24,000, and can produce roughly 1 ton of pellets in 2.5 hours at a cost of $10/ton. There are also cheaper and portable diesel powered ones that are used in farms. Briquetters are larger and more expensive to operate and own, but the products are much better for high-load applications, like furnaces or space heating. I know that there are some companies in upstate NY who turn wasted wood into pellets, but I wonder if there are any companies with pellet mills in the city which will allow me to test coffee grounds.

Photo of Shengmin

Check this out: 
https://grocycle.com
These guys turn coffee grounds into nutritious soil for mushrooms :)

Photo of Ashwin Goutham Gopi

Thanks Shengmin, looks like a great idea. I talked to the person who runs the Hathie Cartan Community Garden (http://www.hattiecarthangarden.com/). They have a compost pit for wasted food from nearby apartment buildings. I asked them if we can create a separate plant bed with only coffee grounds for compost. Actually, there are a lot of acid and nitrogen loving plants which can grow in coffee - azaleas, blueberries, and rhododendrons. The issue is that soil in New York is already acidic, and sometimes they even have to add limestone or wood ash to balance the ph level. I'm going to try growing mushrooms at home, and I'll keep you posted on how it goes.