If you are a java junkie, you may be unwittingly contributing to landfill waste. But a Faribault coffee roaster thinks he has found a sustainable answer to the conundrum.
The parent company of Hills Bros. Coffee and Chock Full O’Nuts has partnered with the tiny Minnesota-based operation to convert millions of pounds of roasted coffee-bean waste into commercial fertilizer.
The new partnership, between JavaCycle in Faribault and Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA (MZB) in Virginia, turns the agricultural waste into a sustainable product worth real cash. The companies involved are hopeful the venture will eventually lead to millions of dollars in revenue and scores of new jobs.
MZB USA is the U.S. arm of an Italian company that grows, roasts, grinds and sells coffee under American brand names such as Hills Bros., Chock Full O’Nuts, Segafredo Zanetti, Kauai Coffee, MJB and Chase & Sanborn.
Going forward, MZB’s U.S. roasting center in Virginia will supply JavaCycle with truckloads of its coffee-bean chaff — the papery bean husks that MZB usually pays someone to haul away to a landfill.
In turn, JavaCycle will mix the chaff with soybean and bone meal to create JavaCycle All Purpose Fertilizer. JavaCycle’s pelletized fertilizer will be sold in 4-pound bags through Amazon.com and locally at Bachman’s garden centers, Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, Eastside Food Co-op, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, Eggplant Urban Farm Supply, Mother Earth Gardens, Hedburg Supply Terra Garden Center and Lakewinds Food Co-op.
The arrangement solves two problems. It gets rid of MZB’s waste chaff in a sustainable way and eliminates garbage hauling fees. It also provides JavaCycle with the big stream of raw materials needed to make the product viable long term.
“We started talking to [MZB] last summer about getting access to their chaff. And it all came together pretty quickly,” said JavaCycle CEO and founder James Curren. “Now, we are pretty excited to be taking these first steps with MZB. Our fertilizer finds new uses for coffee chaff while offering home gardens an organic and sustainable fertilizer option that is safe to use, actually smells good and helps build healthy soil.”
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recycling commercialization specialist Wayne Gjerde said he is presented with lots of zany recycling ideas that are often as worthless as dust.
“But I think this one has some real potential and staying power,” said Gjerde, who worked with Java early on.
“Because MZB and its Hills Bros. and Chock Full O’Nuts coffees are so big, there is a lot of this [chaff] material. So you have a lot of opportunity,” Gjerde said. “When you put something like this into a landfill, it ceases to generate economic value. But when you can keep it out of the landfill, and find new uses, it can generate economic value..”
The coffee recycling project is the brainchild of Curren, who left a lucrative job as an agricultural commodities trader in 2003 to become a coffee roaster in Faribault. While his Providence Coffee business paid the bills, he pursued another passion on the side.
He created a recycling business called JavaCycle that converted coffee-bean burlap bags from around the world into purses, ottomans and seed pod packets. While fun, it always bugged Curren that Providence produced garbage bags full of coffee chaff that simply was thrown away.
Overall, U.S. coffee roasters generated about 32 million pounds of the chaff each year, he said, adding up to a potential waste problem and opportunity.
Besides Gjerde at the MPCA, Curren enlisted scientists at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) to see if coffee chaff contained enough nutrients to be used as a crop or garden fertilizer.
Armed with AURI’s positive chemical analysis, Curren created pelletized blends and asked garden centers to give his new fertilizer a try. In 2015, Gardens of Eagan began testing JavaCycle fertilizer in its greenhouses in controlled groups. The goal was to see if treated plants grew faster and better than the untreated ones. They did.
JavaCycle Soil Builder was born. Curren began selling it in sacks to Gardens of Eagan and Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis.
Curren wanted to expand, but needed a much bigger supply of coffee chaff than his roasting business in Faribault could produce.
He started making phone calls and caught the attention of MZB, which was looking for new ways to enhance its sustainability efforts.
“This announcement is completely in keeping with our company’s commitment to environmental responsibility from seed to cup,” said Sarah Cunningham, Hills Bros.’ senior marketing manager. “This new opportunity completes the coffee life cycle by re-purposing a manufacturing by product into an excellent garden fertilizer.”
JavaCycle is a three-person operation, so Curren hired a family-owned manufacturing company in Kansas to mix and pelletize the fertilizer.
The arrangement will support five factory jobs in Kansas, at least two truckers and several warehouse workers, Curren said. He expects to add five more workers in Faribault by next year to manage sales growth.
Once the retail leg for the current product is grown, Curren said JavaCycle has plans to expand into agricultural applications. “We are completely geared to making this a $5 million to $10 million business,” he said.