October 18, 2019

How to Improve Sustainability in The Coffee Roastery


At every link of the supply chain, making the coffee trade more sustainable has become a pressing task. But too often, we focus just on the coffee farm and the coffee shop, forgetting about the roastery.

Roasting coffee can be fairly efficient in comparison with other stages, but it still uses a lot of energy and involves large quantities of solid waste. According to one study, the roasting, packaging, and distribution of coffee accounts for about 15% of its total carbon footprint on its journey from seed to cup. 

Making your coffee roasting operation more environmentally sustainable doesn’t have to be difficult. Let’s review some practical ways roasters can address energy use and solid waste, with input from coffee professionals.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Mejorar la Sostenibilidad en la Tostaduría de Café

GrainPro bags in use at Bella Vista Coffee, Guatemala. Credit: GrainPro

Cutting Down on Energy Use

The obvious starting point for any roaster who wants to use less energy is their machine. While overloading might result in quality control issues, think twice before underloading. Make sure you work toward the optimal batch size for your roaster and your roastery’s turnover.

Hopefully, you are already keeping your machine well-maintained and clean, which will help it function optimally.  For larger roasting operations, it’s worth looking into a regenerative thermal oxidizer (RTO). While a typical afterburner will incinerate pollutants in the roaster’s exhaust air before releasing them into the atmosphere, an RTO recycles the heat at this stage back into the roaster, decreasing energy costs. 

For smaller roasters, this kind of recirculating technology is available in roasters such as the Loring, while Diedrich’s infrared burners are known for their cleaner exhaust relative to traditional gas burners. 

Peter Mark, Owner of Kuma Coffee in Seattle, tells me that he used to roast on a flame-heated 12 kg machine before upgrading to a 35 kg Loring. He says, “We currently use only 25% of the amount of gas we used to use, even though the machine is three times the size. It is drastically more efficient.” 

At the end of the day, your business needs will dictate what you can immediately do about the roaster you work with. Until you’re at a point where it’s time to move onto a new machine, you can operate it as efficiently as possible. When it’s time to upgrade, you can then make energy efficiency one of your requirements. 

You might also like Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Green and roasted beans in the coffee roastery. Credit: GrainPro

Reducing Single-Use Items

Even if you recycle your single-use items, they still have a large environmental footprint. From the manufacturing and transportation to recycling, all of this requires energy. The best thing you can do is try to find replacements for all your single-use products. Take earplugs: switch to over-the-ear headphones instead and you’ll significantly reduce your yearly waste. 

That being said, sometimes there are single-use items we can’t simply replace. The best we can do is limit their number and then recycle them. Companies such as TerraCycle will take otherwise hard-to-recycle items, such as nitrile gloves.

Terracycle boxes for collecting GrainPro hermetic bags. Credit: Sustainable Harvest

Reusing Chaff & Burlap

Two types of solid waste that no roaster can avoid are chaff and burlap bags. However, they can find a second life in agriculture. 

Chaff makes a fine addition to compost piles, adding fluff and texture as well as nitrogen.Make sure to turn it in well. If you don’t, it tends to clump together on the surface when watered, forming a hard crust that then prevents water from penetrating the soil in the future.

Burlap sacks are also ideal for farm use. They’re rugged, versatile, and perfect for hauling things around in. 

The real problem with removing chaff and burlap from waste streams isn’t so much their lack of value as the fact that many roasters simply produce too much to handle by themselves. The solution, however, may be found in the community. Reach out to farmers and gardeners in your local area to see if they have a use for them. You may find it useful to set a specific day for public collections.

A burlap garden. 

Recycling GrainPro Bags

Another waste stream roasters can tackle is used GrainPro bags. Unfortunately, the LDPE #4 plastic that makes it ideal for storing coffee is being accepted at fewer and fewer municipal recycling centers. 

Ron Hitztaler, Operations Manager at specialty coffee distribution center The Green Room in Seattle, Washington, tells me, “Most facilities will not accept it… It has to be handled and broken down in a very special way, just because of the added components.”

Even when it is accepted, GrainPro President Jordan Dey tells me that “the minimum requirement for LDPE #4 [is] significant.” This has always been a problem for specialty coffee roasters.

Recently, however, GrainPro has partnered with The Green Room to create a solution. US-based roasters can now send their used GrainPro bags to The Green Room, who stores the used bags until they have enough to send them off to the recycling facility. Ron says, “You can go as small as a FedEx, or go with something huge, what they call Gaylord Boxes, on a pallet.” Large roasters, he adds, can send their bags multiple times a week if they need to.

Jordan says, “I am just so thankful to them for their generosity in offering their warehouse space and staff time to help gather the GrainPro bags. And then they’re adding a logistical solution as well. There’s the opportunity to mail the GrainPro bags in or there’s The Green Room truck to pick up if you’re in the Greater Seattle area.”

Green beans in a GrainPro bag. Credit: GrainPro

GrainPro has also introduced a recycling option with TerraCycle, which will accept 280–300 bags at a time. Alfonso Carmona, Chief Marketing Officer of Sustainable Harvest, tells me that Sustainable Harvest collects their customers’ used GrainPro bags and then sends them to TerraCycle for processing.

“Jute and GrainPro bags have been an ever-present source of waste for our customers. We are thrilled to offer a viable solution for coffee roasters in Portland. As the climate crisis continues to accelerate, every action we take to make the supply chain more sustainable counts, and this will be a necessary step in the right direction.”

A TerraCycle recycling box at Brio Coffeeworks in Vermont, USA. Credit: Brio Coffeeworks

Many of the systems and products that roasters use are designed for ease of use rather than reduced waste. This means that roasting with sustainability in mind can sometimes feel like swimming upstream. 

Fortunately, though, the industry is slowly waking up to the need to reduce waste and emissions – meaning that more and more initiatives are being announced. So, sign up for recycling programs like TerraCycle and The Green Room. Cut out as many single-use items as possible. And work with your community to find new uses for solid waste items.

Enjoyed this? Read Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Please note: This article has been sponsored by GrainPro.  You can find out more about GrainPro’s sustainability initiatives here.

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