From coffee to mushrooms

In order to better understand waste generation and patterns, as well as reflect on my personal daily contribution to material waste, I conducted a waste audit for one day in June. I chose a day when I was working from home since that represents a little more than half my regular weekly schedule and data collection was simpler than other days. After collecting the data, I wrote some reflections below and then chose to focus particularly on the coffee I consumed – generating coffee grounds as organic waste – for a brief look at the product’s life cycle.

Material waste produced

  • Breakfast cereal scraps – drain
  • Banana peel – compost
  • Coffee grounds – compost
  • Envelope – paper recycling
  • Blunt razor blade – landfill
  • Excess dishwashing powder – drain
  • Bread crumbs – compost
  • Garlic clove – compost
  • Orange peel – compost
  • Banana peel – compost
  • Lime peel – compost
  • Pencil shavings – landfill
  • Tea bag – compost
  • Broken hot water bottle – landfill
  • Take-away container – plastic recycling
  • Chocolate wrapper – landfill


Although this wasn’t a day in which I generated a comparatively large amount of waste, I was surprised as I tracked it throughout the day that there were more material things I was disposing of than I expected. As I analyse the raw data I collected, I also realise that there is a range of other waste that I generated throughout the day – for example, the wastewater from the shower I had, energy from stereo on standby, carbon emissions from the electricity I used – that I did not think to record as it happened. My key learning from this first exercise in data collection is that people generate more waste than they might realise. This begins to frame part of the design challenge in dealing with waste systems – awareness by the individual of the waste they generate in all its forms and where it goes when it is disposed of.

The life cycle of coffee

This is necessarily a brief look at the life cycle of the espresso coffee I drank, given that technical life cycle assessments (LCAs) are complex undertakings defined by international standards such as ISO 14040 (International Organization for Standardization 2010).

In the context of waste at household level or at an institution like UTS, we are most interested in what happens from the point of disposal of material waste in the making of the cup of coffee and any waste generated through its consumption, such as a disposable cup. However, it is worth reflecting for a moment that a vast amount of waste is generated, even proportionally to the tiny amount of ground coffee beans that are used to make a single cup, throughout the processes that the coffee has gone through, from discarded beans at the farm to carbon emissions in transportation to offcuts and by-products of packaging (Viere, T. 2011).

Clean Slate café in Katoomba, where they put coffee grounds out for people to use on their gardens. Photo: Erland Howden
Clean Slate café in Katoomba, where they put coffee grounds out for people to use on their gardens. Photo: Erland Howden

Returning to the key organic waste from the consumption of the coffee, the ground coffee beans are an interesting waste product to discuss, since 50% of Australians drink coffee and average 4 espresso coffees per week, averaging out to over 2.5kg of coffee beans over the whole population per annum (Ryan, S. 2012). More interesting still because there are a range of valuable uses for used coffee grounds, chiefly as an agricultural supplement. One example is by another interdisciplinary team of researchers at Kansas State University, who used waste coffee grounds generated on-campus to grow mushrooms (States News Service 2014).


Author: Erland Howden

Designer, photographer & facilitator. Vego foodie. Passionate about environmental justice, community organising & travel.

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