coffee grounds compost paris france upcycle mushroom learning network la boite ac hampignons cafe sprudge

When it comes to waste disposal, the city of Paris is one of Europe’s worst students. In my own apartment building, everything from banana peels to sardine cans to cardboard boxes ends up in a single trash can, unsorted. The nearest glass disposal bin is two blocks away. And while I’m lucky enough to live near a community garden that happily accepts eggshells, carrot peelings, and coffee grounds, it is by no means the norm here, where most organic waste ends up in trash bins destined for the incinerator or the landfill.

A report by the ADEME, France’s energy and environment administration, points out that more than 2 million tons of organic matter that could go into enriching soils or producing energy are lost each year. New anti-waste laws finally have the country headed in the right direction, but the most interesting solutions are coming from sustainably-minded entrepreneurs—and coffee waste plays a starring role in several Paris-based projects.

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A Fungal Education

Camila Amaya Castro is one of those entrepreneurs. Colombian by birth and a mechanical engineer by trade, Castro is co-founder of the Mushroom Learning Network (MLN), a European organization that provides a way for people with mushroom-growing projects to connect. We met over coffee at La Caféothèque, where Castro holds a mushroom cultivation workshop from time to time. Participants learn how to propagate mycelium, the mushroom equivalent of seed, on coffee grounds, which share similarities with the moist wood that mushrooms would latch onto in nature. “The workshops are about educating the public… about making people aware that you can grow something from nothing,” she says.

Castro’s MLN grew out of her admiration for Belgian entrepreneur and founder of Zero Emissions Research Initiative Gunter Pauli, who also coined the term “blue economy” to describe a nature-inspired alternative to the world’s current economic model. “A world without waste is a world where every material finds its purpose or where we give purpose to every material,” she says. “Waste is something invented by man; we decide if something is waste or not.” She illustrates her point by picking up the piece of paper with our order scribbled on it: “This has value now as our receipt, but in two hours it will be trash.”

Thirty years ago, Shu-Ting Chang, a Chinese mycologist, found a new purpose for those water-laden spent espresso pucks that pile up under cafe counters. He worked out that certain species of mushrooms lend themselves well to cultivation on substrates that include coffee grounds: oyster, button, and shiitake mushrooms. Today, they’re the three most widely cultivated varieties in the world, while the rest are harvested in the wild. Mushrooms, unlike dogs, cow, and corn, are not easy to tame. “We have domesticated animals and plants, which means we can decide what to grow, when, and how much. We have not been able to domesticate most mushrooms. You can’t decide to put a chanterelle factory there. We don’t know how to do it,” says Castro.

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A Mushroom Community

Chanterelles may be beyond our capabilities, but oyster, button, and shiitake mushrooms have spawned businesses around the world, including one in the belly of the world’s largest wholesale markets, Rungis, a sprawling 573-acre food metropolis six miles south of Paris. On a Friday afternoon, I met Arnaud Ulrich, co-founder of UpCycle, outside of his office in the labyrinth of parking lots and tram tracks that hems the entrance to Rungis. We drove to a “neighborhood” in the market where one of UpCycle’s mushroom farms is located.

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The 700-square-foot room is packed with what look like mini punching bags hanging from metal racks; in fact, they’re budding mushroom colonies. Each bag contains a mix of coffee grounds, wood chips, and mycelium that produces two harvests of yellow or grey oyster mushrooms over a two-week period. As the mycelium grows, it weaves itself through the coffee grounds and wood chips, consuming the nutrients needed to produce the clusters of mushrooms that emerge from slits in the bag. From time to time, overhead sprinklers release a fine, cool mist.

When they reach about eight centimeters in diameter, the oysters are ready to be picked. What’s left is a bag of incredibly rich material that has been broken down and transformed into the ultimate compost, which UpCycle gives to local farmers. “We create the first resource, mushrooms, and then a second when we enrich the soil with what’s left from our harvest,” says Ulrich.

UpCycle produces mushrooms for several dozen restaurants in Paris. Top chefs like Yannick Alleno appreciate the freshness and quality of their particular variety of oyster mushroom. “There are very few chefs working with pleurottes [the French term for oyster mushrooms] because the product has fallen in quality. We are able to deliver a mushroom that is harvested daily, which ensures freshness,” says Ulrich.

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To ensure a consistent harvest, UpCycle collects two tons of coffee grounds a week from automatic coffee machines, the kind found on subway platforms and in office break rooms. “We avoid using resources that have other uses. You can grow mushrooms on straw, but straw serves a lot of other purposes,” explains Ulrich. “Also, it makes no sense to burn coffee grounds, they’re full of water. Try burning some, you’ll see.”

Ulrich says UpCycle has two missions, to bring the benefits of mushrooms to the city and also into individual homes: La Boîte à Champignons is the do-it-yourself version for Parisians with a little bit of counter space. The kits are assembled by individuals in vocational placement programs who have had difficulty finding work. “We want to bring the benefits of mushrooms to the city by recycling waste and creating jobs,” says Ulrich. Since 2011, the company has generated jobs for at least a dozen people.

The biggest challenge for any company whose operations involve a change in mentality is getting businesses to adjust their routines. Because there’s no city-wide compost collection service, coffee grounds end up in the trash with the rest of the organic waste. “There’s a big difference between throwing grounds in the trash and creating a separate bin, putting that bin in a specific area, taking it to storage where we pick it up. It’s a different way to work,” explains Ulrich.

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Stephan Martinez

It’s also a different way to think about waste. Steven Martinez, founder of Moulinot, a company that proposes organic waste disposal solutions for the hospitality industry says, “I think we’re different from the historic players. Why? Because we’re not doing the same job. We don’t collect garbage, we’re collecting leftovers. And these leftovers are a valuable raw material. There’s more benefit to recycling them than burning them.”

It Takes a Methanation of Millions

Soon, many restaurants won’t have a choice: as of January 1st, 2016, any establishment producing more than 10 tons of organic waste a year must find an alternative to incineration. The threshold has been decreasing since 2012 when it was set at 120 tons a year, and according to Martinez, there’s talk that by 2025 anyone producing any amount of organic waste will have to fall in line. For the moment, there’s no municipal system in place to deal with collecting and transforming this waste—it’s up to the businesses themselves to find a solution, or risk a €65,000 fine.

In 2008, Martinez discovered red worm composting in Canada and decided to try it for himself in his two Paris restaurants. “All our waste was heading to the incinerator, so I set up my own sorting, collecting, and treatment. I had 10 kilos of red worms right there in my basement,” he says, explaining the origins of Moulinot. In March 2015, he began a nine-month pilot project with the city of Paris and the restaurant and hospitality union, Synhorcat, to develop a methodology for sorting and collecting organic waste at the city’s restaurants, schools, and corporate cafeterias. Today, Moulinot is a private service with 11 employees operating a fleet of natural-gas-powered trucks that collects seven tons of organic waste from roughly 150 establishments twice a day.

Moulinot has sent 2,200 tons of waste to be transformed into energy via methanation since it was founded. But in the long run, Martinez hopes to see a large percentage end up as high quality compost for local farmers. This year, he launched a feasibility study for industrial-scale composting. “We’ve always thought that this raw material has incredible value as compost. Our objective is to have that waste enrich the soil,” he says.

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Antoine Nétien, founder of Coutume Café, thinks along the same lines. He sends around 60 kilograms of coffee grounds a week to the Catherine-Labouré garden a block away, along with the coffee bean skins shed during roasting. “There’s no organic waste collection in Paris, so the gardeners don’t always have enough for their compost. This one is happy to come with his wheelbarrow once a week,” he says. Batches of beans that don’t quite measure up to Nétien’s standards are donated to a local artists’ collective each month. This is all part of Coutume’s ongoing effort to reduce the amount of waste it generates, which includes stocking only products that come in recyclable glass bottles.

Despite his efforts and those of others, there is only so much that Parisian businesses can do with their waste as long as the city itself doesn’t take steps to provide infrastructure that supports their actions. “We’ve thought about compostable packaging, but it makes no sense in Paris,” says Nétien. “There’s no compost system here. The city needs to make a real effort. We’re still far behind our European neighbors.”

Kate Robinson (@KateOnTheLoose) is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Read more Kate Robinson on Sprudge

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