Water basins for coffee processing, via Utz Certified.

According to the USDA Coffee Report for Arabica green coffee, over 11 billion pounds of coffee were produced worldwide in 2013. Some reports suggest that waste is 2.5 times that, which means that ideas for how to deal with coffee waste, like repurposing it for new products, are incredibly important right now.

You can always scrub your face with coffee grounds, but in terms of the impact of your personal reuse of coffee waste, the scale is very small. Surely there must be a way to put waste related to the coffee industry to good use on a larger scale?

The Energy from Coffee Wastewater project by UTZ Certified has been looking to do just that. Launched in 2010, its goal was to address environmental and health problems caused by the wastewater produced in the coffee industry. As a certification company, UTZ Certified claims to offer brands the ability to track and trace coffee from its place on the shelf all the way back to the farmer. Sustainability is one of the big watchwords at UTZ, so it’s no surprise that they would launch into the question of wastewater as a part of their larger quest.

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While most people think of coffee grounds as the key part of coffee waste, things start much earlier in the production process. Think about the water for a second: UTZ claims that just one cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water to produce in Latin America, where the “washed” coffee process is culturally prevalent. The wastewater from coffee production is regularly released untreated into rivers (again, according to UTZ), affecting both the environment and the health of communities that depend on that water for drinking.

Through the Energy from Coffee Wastewater project, custom coffee wastewater treatment systems were installed in eight coffee farms in Nicaragua, ten in Honduras and one in Guatemala. These systems purport to use less water during coffee processing and also offer the ability to treat wastewater effectively, including the capture of biogas, which can be used to power households and coffee mills.

Biogas lamps in Nicaragua. Via Utz Certified.
Biogas lamps in Nicaragua. Via Utz Certified.

“Coffee production is only environmentally sustainable when water is used efficiently and polluted water from the wet-mill process is treated. Local ecosystems do not have the capacity to clean the large amounts of contaminated fluids,” Han De Groot, executive director at UTZ Certified, said in a statement. “Rural communities and coffee production depend intrinsically on a ready supply of fresh water. So if we want to talk about coffee produced in a sustainable manner then wastewater must be treated when released into the environment.”

When it comes to questions of coffee production and sustainability, this UTZ Certified project is just one example of thinking big. So far the project results have been positive, and the treatment systems are now being introduced in countries like Peru and Brazil, with hopes to expand to Africa and Asia in the coming years.

Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a staff writer based in Paris and the founder of Foodie Underground. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.

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