Why the future of coffee production relies on a circular economy

circular economy coffee
  • Decades of a “take-make-waste” approach has led to a climate crisis
  • The coffee sector is at risk of falling production due to global warming
  • All members of the supply chain must strive together for a circular economy

FOR MANY it didn’t take the United Nations’ 3,000-page climate change report to realise that the planet was at breaking point: a series of droughts, flash floods, and forest fires this year have shown that the climate crisis is real and that it’s happening right on our doorsteps.

However, one of the most worrying aspects of the report, which was compiled by more than 230 scientists, is that the impact of climate change will hit agriculture-based economies disproportionately hard.

A reliance on climate sensitive sectors, alongside a lack of infrastructure and funding, mean that their communities will be left to deal with the effects of global warming far more than those in Europe and the US.

As the majority of coffee is grown and processed in these countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam, climate change poses a significant threat to the global coffee supply.

Rising temperatures are already reducing the amount of land available for coffee production, while unpredictable rainfall patterns are leading to more frequent outbreaks of coffee leaf rust.

The solution is complex and varied, relying on participation from all members of the supply chain. However, a central goal that has emerged for everyone, from producers to baristas to consumers, is the concept of a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

For decades, a “make-take-waste” attitude has characterised societies around the world. Rather than reusing or recycling, the majority of the products are used once before going to landfill or ending up in our oceans. This is known as a “linear economy”.

The alternative is what’s known as a circular economy – a “closed loop” system designed to minimise waste, drive greater resource productivity, and lower the environmental impact of both production and consumption.

Although the concept dates back to the 1970s, it’s largely thanks to the more recent efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) that the idea of a circular economy has gained momentum.

According to the foundation, a circular economy is an economy that’s “restorative and regenerative by design”. It aims to move away from the traditional concept of take-make-waste, which is putting strain on the environment and the planet’s natural resources.

In the coffee industry, the need for a more circular economy is becoming almost impossible to ignore. Recent estimates suggest that global coffee production generates more than 20 million tonnes of waste annually, from coffee pulp to used coffee grounds and takeaway cups.

While some of this waste is recycled, the vast majority ends up going to landfill or finding its way into rivers and oceans. Not only does this have an impact on the environment, it also means that raw materials are continuously required to create new products.

What can coffee producers do?

Mark Zhou is the founder of MTPak Coffee, a manufacturer and supplier of sustainable coffee packaging in Shanghai. His company was founded on the belief that long-term security for the coffee sector will require action from stakeholders across the supply chain.

“Everyone who works in the coffee industry has a responsibility to change their ways and become more sustainable,” he says. “Even if it feels as though our impact is relatively small, it’s crucial to set an example and lead from the front.”

Indeed, working towards a circular economy is as much about taking action as it is about changing mentalities. The idea of a linear economy has become so ingrained that it can be daunting to move away from it.

However, some initiatives are making the transition to a circular economy more and more accessible, particularly for those on the production side. For example, Farmers’ Hub is an example of an initiative designed to promote a circular model by improving access to resources, infrastructure, and education.

As well as selling their crop, smallholder coffee farmers can use their “Hub” to access machinery, post-harvest handling equipment, marketing information, and agronomic advice. Not only does this increase income and farm yields, it helps them work towards a more sustainable future – something Mark tells me is crucial.

“To achieve a circular economy, we need to look at how resources are managed, how products are made and reused, and how the materials are handled afterwards,” he explains. “This applies as much to producers as it does to roasters and baristas.

“If we don’t each put into action our own little changes, we can’t expect to have the same production of coffee as we have now.”