September 26, 2022

Can you run a zero-waste coffee shop?


At every level of the coffee supply chain, sustainability is a pressing issue. And while many initiatives focus on reducing the environmental impact of coffee production, the volume of waste produced by coffee shops is also a major concern for many people.

To address this problem, some coffee businesses are opting for more sustainable approaches to waste management, including circular economy models. These environmentally-friendly practices can vastly reduce waste, among numerous other benefits.

As part of this movement, a growing number of coffee shops are choosing to go “zero waste”, but what exactly does this mean? And is it achievable? I spoke with two coffee sustainability experts to find out more.

You may also like our article on how coffee shops can reduce single-use cup waste.

Barista at work in a coffee shop

What does “zero waste” mean? 

With more and more consumers focusing on sustainability in the coffee industry, the term “zero waste” has become somewhat of a buzzword over the past few years. But what does it actually mean?

Essentially, the concept of zero waste is based on the elimination of waste, mainly through reusing and recycling products, materials, and packaging. According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero-waste practices must reuse, recover, or recycle these items “without burning them and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”. 

Ultimately, the end goal of zero-waste practices is to prevent the production of waste altogether. This is a daunting task considering that a staggering 91% of all plastics ever produced haven’t been recycled – ending up in landfills and oceans around the world instead.

It’s unclear as to when the term “zero waste” was first coined, with some reporting that its origins trace back to the 1970s. The chemist Paul Palmer is believed to have first used the term while discussing how to reuse “clean” waste chemicals produced in Silicon Valley, as opposed to using them once before disposing of them. Palmer later went on to become the founding director of the Zero Waste Institute.

In 1997, however, California’s Resource Recovery Association announced its “zero-waste” goal as part of its agenda for the new millennium. This is widely considered to be the first implementation of official zero-waste management practices in the US.

Despite the lack of official definition or certification, zero-waste hospitality businesses are starting to become more popular in countries around the world. This movement is largely driven by the ever-growing demand to reduce (or eliminate) levels of waste produced from coffee businesses – including single-use cups, lids, packaging, napkins, and straws.

Brewing a pour over using a reusable gold metal filter, Revolver Cafe, Cambie Street, Vancouver, Canada

Is it possible for a coffee shop to be zero waste?

In theory, for a coffee shop to use the “zero waste” label, it shouldn’t produce any waste at all. 

However, in practice, this can be anywhere from difficult to impossible. This is because coffee shops generally produce significant amounts of waste – from takeaway cups and lids to leftover milk and used coffee grounds. Beyond that, you also have the packaging the products came in, such as cardboard and plastic.

Marion Vignot is the General Manager of Responsible Cafés, a non-profit organisation in Australia which supports coffee shops transitioning over to more sustainable business practices. 

She says it’s impossible for a coffee shop to be fully zero waste. Instead, she believes cafés should focus on ensuring that as little waste as possible goes to landfill.

“The focus should be on using products and materials that are reusable rather than disposable,” she tells me. “It’s about creating a community of people with similar mindsets.”

Lenka Kriz is a co-owner of Cat & Cow Coffee in New South Wales, Australia – a zero-waste coffee shop she co-founded with her husband in 2019. 

“[For a coffee shop], zero waste means minimising waste wherever possible,” she says. “It’s about trying to avoid creating unnecessary waste.

“For us, this ranges from refusing any leaflets or samples we are offered to communicating with our suppliers about reusing and returning packaging when possible,” she adds. “We also use compostable and recyclable items, so our landfill bin is only a quarter-full every two weeks.”

Ultimately, zero-waste management practices can vary widely from one coffee shop to another. The extent of these practices can depend on a number of factors, such as location, menu items, supplier partners, and number of staff.

100% compostable take away coffee cup

Weighing up the pros and cons

Although the concept of zero waste can be appealing to consumers – particularly younger demographics – some coffee shops are reluctant to adopt zero-waste practices for several reasons.

Careful planning and extensive investment are required to become a zero-waste coffee shop. This can include staff training, replacing certain equipment with more sustainable alternatives, and informing customers about new systems like reusable cup schemes.

“Some business owners think it will be expensive, but that isn’t necessarily true,” Marion says. “Others may be unable to, mostly because they’re part of a bigger coffee company and need to follow company policies.”

Lenka tells me that in her experience, implementing more zero-waste practices in her business was a personal choice.

“My husband and I had been adhering to zero-waste principles in our personal lives three years prior to opening Cat & Cow Café,” she says. “I worked as a barista and coffee shop manager for more than six years. 

“The closer we came to opening Cat & Cow, the clearer it was that we couldn’t operate it without representing our core values,” she adds.

Despite the challenges, there are clear benefits to including more zero-waste management practices in your coffee business.

“It’s an effective way to act on climate change and have a broader impact,” Marion explains. “Zero-waste coffee shops should feel good about the efforts they are making, while also promoting a zero-waste culture and encouraging consumers to do the same.”

In order for a coffee shop to successfully adopt more zero-waste practices, customers need to be onboard with the changes as well.

Lenka explains that while she was initially unsure how customers would react, they have mostly been accepting. 

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she tells me. “On our opening day people brought their own reusable cups. 

“We don’t offer disposable cups, so some customers left without coffee,” she adds. “But the majority of our customers have remained loyal to us and we have created a strong community.”

In fact, research suggests that implementing zero-waste practices can actually increase a coffee shop’s appeal to customers. According to a UK survey on consumer shopping preferences, more than half of people surveyed were interested in food and beverage businesses which include zero-waste practices. 

Moreover, 37% of people were interested in food products made using upcycled ingredients. Alongside this, 43% wanted their purchases to be more sustainably packaged – indicating a growing interest in zero-waste products and packaging.

Alongside customers, coffee shop staff also need to support the adoption of zero-waste practices.

“More people are looking for work that aligns with their own values,” Lenka says. “We attract staff who are more environmentally conscious, so our staff turnover rates are generally lower.”

a glass container filled with coffee beans

Implementing zero-waste practices in your coffee shop

It can be daunting to know where to begin when implementing zero-waste targets across your coffee business.

“It can be overwhelming to find the right information as waste disposal rules can often change,” Marion says.

For coffee shop owners who are unsure of how to make the initial necessary steps, she recommends doing some research beforehand. Marion suggests contacting the nearest waste disposal authority to get a better understanding of which materials and items it collects, or even connecting with zero-waste lifestyle bloggers.

However, she emphasises that it’s important to be critical of the information you receive – especially from online sources.

Once coffee shop owners feel more informed, Lenka says they can assess which items or materials can be recycled or composted instead of being sent to landfill. 

“When I managed a coffee shop, around 95% of the waste going into the landfill bins was actually compostable or recyclable,” she says. “This included used coffee grounds, paper, bags, and food leftovers, which can all be composted. 

“Milk bottles, cartons, and some soft plastics can also be recycled,” she adds.

But in order to ensure that as little waste as possible is sent to landfill, it must be disposed of correctly.

“Many packaging suppliers label their products as compostable without explaining that they require specialised facilities to dispose of them,” Marion explains. “Some coffee shop owners use compostable cups, but they’re not aware that they are industrial compostable-certified, [which means they need to be sent to a composting plant].”

If not disposed of properly, even biodegradable and compostable materials can remain intact for hundreds of years and release harmful gases, so correct disposal of waste is essential.

No matter which zero-waste practices you implement in your coffee shop, you need to effectively communicate them to customers so they know what to expect. This can range from telling them to bring their own container when purchasing retail coffee beans to informing them how to correctly use the waste disposal systems.

“The wait time for food is usually longer because our menu items are made from scratch,” Lenka says. “For people coming into our café for the first time, communication is so crucial. 

“It might take longer for them to receive their order, but you can take the time to inform customers on the benefits of being zero waste,” she adds.

a selection of reusable cups in a zero-waste coffee shop

Although operating a fully zero-waste coffee shop is something of an impossible task, implementing more zero-waste practices is certainly achievable for many coffee businesses.

The benefits of doing so are undeniable, but one thing is clear: any transition like this will require extensive investment, time, and commitment.

Ultimately, for business owners who are interested in being more sustainable, small steps can make a huge impact.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to create a coffee shop food menu that minimises waste.

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