Food, Nutrition & Science

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Wednesday September 24, 2014

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Turning Coffee Waste Into Energy

In The News

Everyone, it seems, loves coffee. In fact, coffee is so loved that the world consumes about 1.6 billion cups of the stuff per day, according to the National Coffee Association. But coffee production takes its toll on the environment. Producing 91,000 metric tons of coffee per harvest generates 91,000 cubic meters of wastewater and about 2,780 metric tons of methane. This is equivalent to the wastewater it would take to fill 36 Olympic-sized pools and the amount of CO2 produced by 20,000 cars a year.

Coffee wastewater is an environmental and economic problem. It is an environmental problem because wastewater contaminates superficial and underground water resources, upon which rural communities depend on to obtain drinking water. It also acidifies the soil and poses a direct threat to aquifers, aquatic fauna and flora. Additionally, untreated coffee wastewater generates a great amount of greenhouse gases, primarily: carbon dioxide and methane. And since economic activities depend on the availability of natural resources, wastewater is also an economic problem. These are all problems that UTZ Certified is hoping to solve with their Energy from Coffee Wastewater Project.

UTZ Certified is a sustainability certification program for coffee, cocoa and tea. They promote better farming methods, better working conditions, better care for nature and better care for next generations. This leads to a better crop, better income, better environment, and a better life for those involved in the production of these important commodities.

UTZ’s Energy from Coffee Wastewater Project is the next step in producing coffee sustainably and responsibly. Here’s how it works: UTZ runs coffee wastewater through an anaerobic bio-digester or anaerobic reactor, which in turns produces the biogas methane. This biogas can be used to power coffee processing machinery, generate energy for households’ stoves, and produce electricity for lighting. At the same time, a water treatment system is put in place so that clean, treated water can be reintroduced into the environment. 

“If we do not address these environmental externalities today, it will have a greater cost in the future,” says Mira-Bai Simón, Global Media Relations for UTZ. “If coffee production is to become truly sustainable, then wastewater must be treated.”

Farms of all sizes can use the technology, although the system differs in structure and cost for a small versus a large coffee farm. Whereas a small farm might get a direct source of energy to power a household’s kitchen and lighting, the large farm might use the energy to power its pulping machines. Also, many coffee producers, mainly small and medium-sized ones, are not able to cover the cost of installing such a system. The cost varies from 2,000 Euros for a small system to 200,000 Euros for a large-scale system. Until now, all the pilot sites have been funded by outside organizations. The current project was funded by UTZ Certified, the Dutch organization Hivos, and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Agriculture and Innovation. 

“These kind of initiatives need to be supported by a multi-stakeholder approach in which the large coffee traders and governments are also willing to engage,” says Simón.

UTZ Certified has installed treatment systems on coffee farms in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, and is currently introducing the technology in Peru and Brazil. It hopes to get further funds and the industry’s support to replicate the initiative in Africa and Asia. The results from four-year pilot projects at 19 sites in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua covering small, medium and large-scale coffee producers and processors are promising and show that by applying cleaner production practices based on efficiency and recycling we can reduce water consumption significantly from 24 liters/kg of green coffee on average before the pilot began to just 10 liters/kg of green coffee after two harvests. 

“Because we want to make sustainable agriculture the norm and not the exception, we call on the industry to have a strong role in rewarding sustainable production by taking responsibility in sourcing sustainable ingredients for their final products. It is then up to the brand or the retailer to promote the UTZ label. Today, roasters, traders, brands and more do not need to pay any fee to UTZ for using the logo if they want to. However, there is a strict labeling policy to follow, so that the message is clear to consumers. We want consumers to buy the products they like, trusting in their brands’ social and environmental responsibility,” adds Simón.