How to make everyday waste a fuel for the future: the man turning coffee into gold

Edward Perchard speaks to bio-bean’s Arthur Kay about coffee recycling and how innovative thinking about common waste streams could transform the way we live.

Full of beans

As the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Leader of the Year 2015, ‘The UK’s Most Innovative Young Entrepreneur’ according to Shell, and CIWM’s Rising Star of 2015, Arthur Kay’s had a pretty good couple of years.

He’s the Founder and CEO of bio-bean, a company that recycles waste coffee grounds into advanced biofuels, which has been made one of the poster boys for the circular economy for its innovative approach to a hitherto untapped waste stream.

It all started with a project when Kay was working towards his Architecture degree at University College, London, which he admits was “not the most obvious” route into the world of resource management and biofuels: “I was looking at how you can make closed-loop systems within very tight geographic regions, actually within a building. The building I was designing happened to be a coffee shop and factory and so was based around this concept of whether you can create very small circular economies.” Like many students working on university projects, coffee figured centrally. “I got very interested in coffee waste. It’s a very interesting waste stream that has lots of interesting chemical compounds, very high oil content and a good calorific value, so that means it’s ideal for both solid fuel and liquid transport fuel.”

Kay admits that he doesn’t have much of a background in science, but the more he studied, the more potential he saw in reprocessing coffee grounds. “It quickly turned from an idea which sounds a bit wacky, to something which seemed like an opportunity as a commercial venture, and so on graduating, I set up bio-bean, and we’ve been growing ever since.” That growth has seen expansion, from the company’s foundation in 2013, to a team of 25 and a factory in Cambridgeshire capable of processing 50,000 tonnes of coffee waste. Using a combination of processes developed internally and some existing technologies and machinery, the factory turns used grounds – collected from coffee shops, offices, transport hubs, shopping centres and coffee stores, as well as instant coffee factories – into biofuel.

Full of beans

With coffee being made and consumed in all corners of the earth, the potential for a process that turns its waste into energy seems huge. Kay agrees: “50,000 tonnes
 is roughly 10 per cent of the UK’s coffee market, so whenever I see 10 people drinking a cup of coffee, I consider that we’re recycling one of them. We’re hoping
to be doing a quarter of a million tonnes in the next couple of years.” He predicts that growth will be based on two key markets, the first being dense urban areas. Franchise requests have already been received from all over the world, from Chile to New Zealand, and all the way to Siberia. The second market is based around instant coffee factories, which produce a huge amount of waste during production and so present a huge market for on-site reprocessing.

Partner waste management companies, which don’t have to pay a gate fee, deliver the coffee waste that goes into the factory. Kay reckons the key to the young company’s success results from thinking about itself not as a coffee recycler, but as a biofuels manufacturer. “It’s really kind of taking up the idea of the circular economy that step further”, he says. “We see it as not waste at all; it’s just a resource that is annoyingly in the wrong place. So, our only revenue source is from the manufacturing and selling of various sustainable products as opposed to, say, charging a gate fee. That’s really where the saving comes in because some of our partners and their clients save huge amounts of money through working with us and disposing of it through our collection network as opposed to typical anaerobic landfills, compost and incinerators.” The symbiotic relationship between bio-bean and its suppliers is a “critical piece of the puzzle”, asserts Kay, and will be pivotal in its processes reaching their potential.

Despite this, he says the key barrier that bio-bean has and continues to come up against is how the resource management sector perceives small companies and new ideas. “Generally, it’s still very resistant, and we understand that because a lot of capital is tied up in infrastructure. But this sector needs to be much more fleet of foot and to take new opportunities when they come as opposed to just playing the same old drum and waiting for government to lead the way with incentives and subsidies.”

In order for industry to take on innovative practices that make better use of resources, new businesses must lead on economic as well as green benefits. As Kay notes, “the reality is still that businesses are driven by financial returns and metrics”, adding: “I think some of the challenges that environmentally-friendly companies have faced in the past is that they expect businesses to lose money on something because it’s the green option. The focus needs to be that this is a cost saving or money-making exercise that is green, as opposed to leading with that environmental focus, which often turns people off because they expect it to not make money. It’s not a playoff, they can work well together, and the circular economy is a fantastic way to do that.”

bio-bean conducts extensive research & development

Kay suggests that his background may have helped him in this regard: “The interesting thing about an architecture education is you have to do everything from designing the door handle up to thinking about how cities are mapped out and the master plan of a region or a house. So, you see things from an environmental perspective, as well a technical perspective, as well as a financial perspective. It gets you to think holistically about projects.”

The onus on innovation is not just on industry to adopt it, but also on entrepreneurs to follow through with it, and Kay doesn’t think that young people are encouraged to think differently enough. “I think it’s very far down the agenda, and we’re not taught to think outside the box. We’re taught to deliver the status quo and do it in as efficient a way as possible, and ideally get ‘A’s en route. There’s also a balance of coming up with new ideas and innovating, and the delivery and hard work that goes behind that. I think it’s key to understand that balance: it’s not a case of popping up with an idea and then it becomes a reality and exciting things happen.”

Although his route into the industry may have been unorthodox, Kay was studying architecture because of his love of the city and to discover how managing it sustainably can impact on virtually all aspects of human life. “I was always very interested in design and particularly, even from an early age, the design of cities. I remember my LEGO adventures got to quite a large scale, so I was always thinking relatively big about how people live safely within cities.

“I think that almost all the problems we face pretty much globally are down to how we think about and manage cities. It’s not dressed up as that, but a lot of it is down to how, when you put lots of people together in small places, they either clash or have mental health issues or have insufficient food security...

“We’re moving from a world which was almost entirely rural 100 years ago to the mid-21st century where over three quarters of us will live in cities. I think that’s probably the most fundamental change to how we live in the history of humanity. The challenges will be massive in terms of how we build these bigger cities, but also the opportunities for things like the economic opportunity and the ability to access resources. I think it will be the biggest opportunity of our generation.

“I always come back to the point that cities are really, really important: if we want a sustainable future, cities will be fundamental. About 70 per cent of all global emissions – in terms of energy and water consumption, waste, and food production – are directly attributable to cities. That’s only going to increase as we move.

“If we want to tackle big problems like climate change, we shouldn’t think ‘how do we sort this globally?’ It’s actually really specific. It’s not simple, indeed it’s very tricky, but these things are directly attributable to cities, so let’s look at cities to solve them and really focus our resources and attention around them, as opposed to trying to make it sound big and scary and impossible to solve.”

This article was taken from Issue 84

So, those awards. Why exactly does Kay think that his idea has caught the imagination? He assures me that he is just the figurehead for the good work his team has done following through on an interesting idea. “I think the main thing is that it’s been taken from an idea which sounds wacky, but is a reality. It makes a good story to say you can heat your building with coffee. The difference with lots of these stories is that we can back it up and can show people our factory and our work with these companies ranging from some of the biggest coffee producers and waste management companies down to independent coffee shops. And so the proof is in the pudding that we’re not just talking about it, we’re making it happen.”

There’s plenty of scope for similar stories to be told. For example, Celtic Renewables is taking the byproducts from the Scottish whisky industry, which is 90 per cent of what flows out of a distillery, and turning them into biofuels. Kay’s a fan: “It’s a very interesting kind of model, taking a segregated organic waste stream and making it valuable through some really simple technology. The industry is full of interesting waste streams. If you take an approach which is much more technically- focused around understanding that waste stream and think from the biochemical perspective then there is no end of different waste streams you can look at.

“The one thing I’m sure of is there’s huge opportunity in the space and I think it’s going to be a big growth sector for the UK as some of the big waste management companies begin to realise that it’s not just a good marketing spiel, and that there is actually gold there.”