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Cool beans! Stansted Airport initiative with Cambridge company bio-bean that converts waste coffee into logs is grounds for optimism

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As you sip your morning coffee, do you ever think about the scale of the industry that lies behind it? Or the amount of waste our caffeine habit creates?

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after crude oil. A staggering 2.2 billion cups are consumed every single day, generating 18 million tonnes of waste coffee grounds a year.

Here in the UK, our share is 95 million cups a day and around half a million tonnes of waste a year. Most of this ends up in landfill, where it slowly rots down, releasing harmful emissions including methane – a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide and a significant driver of climate change.

Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900202)
Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900202)

But what if we saw those coffee grounds not as waste but as a valuable resource to be reclaimed and upcycled into new products?

This principle is the cornerstone of a new initiative announced by Stansted Airport. It has become the first airport in the world to convert all its coffee waste to solid biofuels, through a ground-breaking partnership with Cambridge company bio-bean.

Previously, under the airport’s 'zero waste to landfill' policy, waste coffee grounds were mixed with food waste and processed in an anaerobic digestion facility, producing biogas used to generate energy.

Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900198)
Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900198)

Under the new initiative, all 21 of the airport’s coffee shops and food outlets will separate out spent coffee grounds, which will then be sent to bio-bean’s processing facility near Huntingdon.

There, the grounds are dried and converted into Coffee Logs, for use in domestic wood burners and multi-fuel stoves as a more sustainable alternative to conventional fuels. According to bio-bean, this cuts emissions by 80% compared to landfill and 70% compared to anaerobic digestion.

Already the world’s largest recycler of coffee grounds, bio-bean is about to double its processing capacity to 16,000 tonnes a year. It is on a mission to "create sustainable change at scale and with real impact by transforming coffee waste into value".

With this in mind, it has its sights set on supplying raw materials for more durable products and extracting natural flavours and aromas for the food industry.

Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900193)
Coffee bean recycling at Stansted Airport (19900193)

Coffee waste is potentially big business. A quick search on the internet reveals an amazing range of products made from coffee grounds, including furniture, sunglasses, trainers, printing ink... even dishwasher-safe coffee cups!

As part of my bid to ban plastic from my bathroom, I’ve started using a facial serum produced from spent coffee grounds, made by UK-based beauty company Upcircle, which secured backing on TV's Dragons’ Den last year.

For Stansted Airport, this partnership is the next step in its 'zero waste to landfill' policy. As environment manager Martin Churley explains, avoiding landfill is just the first step. Then it’s all about finding ways to reuse waste or, ideally, to stop it being generated in the first place.

Airports have some unusual waste streams to deal with. There are all the things that people pack in their hand luggage only to find they can’t take them on board – everything from peanut butter (I’ve done that) to Christmas crackers. Over the past two years, Stansted has donated over 15 tonnes of these items to local food banks.

Then there are up to 30 baby buggies a month, abandoned by people who bought a cheap one to take on holiday and couldn’t be bothered to wait for it to emerge on the baggage conveyor. These now go to charity shops.

Next in Martin’s sights is the 50-plus tonnes of plastic bottles collected at airport security each year. These are segregated by hand and recycled, but this is one waste that he wants to see eliminated through a big shift in passenger behaviour.

To support this, a sink is provided by security so you can pour away what you can’t drink and free water refills are now available at all food outlets airside. The message is: if you can drink it, do. If not, pour it away and refill your bottle for free.

Just like coffee, there is a bittersweet note to this story.

The launch of Stansted’s partnership with bio-bean coincided with the Extinction Rebellion climate protests in London, which saw over 1,700 arrests.

Recycling 150 tonnes of coffee grounds will save about 85 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, which pales into insignificance when set against the climate impacts of aviation.

I must be honest, I set out for Stansted feeling a bit cynical. Surely this is just window dressing? A feel-good distraction from the bigger picture?

I found it hard to maintain that cynicism when I came face to face with Martin’s passion and dedication.

Yes, there is a bigger story to tell around flying, one that I will attempt to unpack for you in future columns. For now, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this coffee waste partnership is a positive initiative which will hopefully be picked up by other airports and perhaps even by the many coffee shops of Bishop's Stortford. Then we could all enjoy our lattes even more.

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