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What one business is doing to make zero-waste coffee

A social enterprise start-up powered by a City of Sydney grant has devised the zero-waste solution, of ‘lending’ coffee beans to local businesses and taking back the coffee grounds for reuse.

Coffee grounds are a natural fertiliser, can be used as a substrate to grow mushrooms, and also feature in beauty products. But much of the time they end up in landfill adding to carbon emissions.

Kua delivers specialty Ugandan grown coffee beans in benchtop canisters to Sydney workplaces through a subscription-based model. The used grounds are then provided to a network of community gardens throughout Sydney.

Kua co-founder Darcy Small said those recipients include Indigrow an Aboriginal Social Enterprise in La Perouse along with smaller organisations like the Randwick Community Garden and Camdenville Community Garden in Newtown. Another social enterprise called Raisethebar turned the coffee grounds into body scrubs.

Landfill diversion

So far Kua’s saved over 3000 kilos of coffee grounds from landfill – that’s the waste from over 159,000 cups of coffee. Meanwhile, 100 per cent of the profits go to farmers in Uganda to help build resilience to climate change into their farms.

Through a partnership with Ecotrust the project supports farmers to plant native trees to sequester carbon and build terraced waterways. This helps regreen the mountains where the coffee is grown and stabilise the slopes.

The City of Sydney has supported Kua’s journey with two environmental performance – innovation grants. These grants help Sydneysiders test a new technology or process that can benefit the green and circular economy and isn’t already being used locally.

2019 start-up

In 2019 Kua received funding for a feasibility study. Darcy explained that it allowed them to run a pilot project testing their concept with six workplaces.

“The grant allowed us to experiment with our business model. It gave us the confidence to try something different. Even though our pilot didn’t perfectly work, it showed us the business-to-business model had real potential.”

This year, Kua successfully applied for the second phase of support, which provides 50% matched funding to further grow the project. The plan was to use the latest grant to scale the project across more businesses in the city.

“Just before Covid-19 arrived, we’d grown the businesses we worked with to 30. The second grant was positioned to get us to 50 or 60 at which point we should be able to continue by ourselves unsupported,” he added.

Response to Covid-19

However, the move to working from home has stalled the need for office coffee supplies. Darcy said that the team is continuing to have conversations with their partner businesses to understand their return to work plan.

“We expect most will be back to work at probably around 50% capacity towards the end of the year. But we’ve remodelled everything to assume that we’re starting from zero again and we’ll try and onboard both new and older customers over the next 12 months.”

“We’re looking at whether we can do a similar service for people who buy coffee at home and looking at cafes.”

They’ve also had to reconsider the way they deliver a closed-loop product for home consumers – previously workplaces were the collection points for the coffee waste.

“The packaging will be 100 per cent compostable. It will also come with educational material around what to do with your coffee grounds at home, whether that’s dropping onto a local community garden or using them as a body scrub.”

Mapping circular impact

The business has also been using the Covid time to map the entire circular impact of their business using digital platform Unleashed.

“Things like canisters are now serialised so we know where they’ve been, how many life cycles they have had, and how much waste they’ve collected,” Darcy said.

One thing they don’t have to worry about at the moment is coffee supply.

“We bought about 4 tonnes of coffee last year in Uganda, which arrived in May. Because of Covid, we’ve got more supply than we need. It will last for the next 12 months.”

The next round of grants closes 31 August 2020  environmental performance – innovation grant.