For every cup of joe you drink, around two tablespoons of coffee grounds winds up in the bin. That might not sound like a lot but, but multiply that by millions every day in cafes and restaurants around the world, and that's a serious mountain of landfill fodder.
It was mulling over this problem that gave German product designer Julian Lechner a curious idea. What if instead of getting buried in rubbish bags, old coffee grounds could be recycled into something useful and sustainable?
The result was Kaffeeform, a company producing espresso cups and saucers made from dried coffee grounds and biopolymer. Resembling stoneware, the vessels are light and easy to pick up, made of smooth-textured, durable material that's both unbreakable and dishwasher friendly.
"They even still smell a little bit like coffee," Lechner says proudly.
He first started toying with the idea of eco-friendly crockery when studying at a design school in the northern Italian city of Bolzano.
"We were always drinking coffee at university," he says. "Before classes, after classes, meeting friends, hanging out at espresso bars—all the time. And that's how I started to wonder, What happens to all that coffee? It was all just getting thrown away."
Lechner began talking to his teachers about what materials could be mixed with the grounds to create a solid material. It was years before he would eventually partner with a German research institute and develop with a substance that could be blended with the grounds.
"We tried binding with a lot of different things," he says. "We even tried sugar. That was close, but basically it was a candy cup. It just kept dissolving after being used three times."
Lechner knew he needed drinkware that would survive getting sloshed in a dishwasher and still be reusable. Finally, in 2014, he found the perfect formula by blending grounds with wood grains and a biopolymer of cellulose, lignin, and natural resins.
"The moment of knowing the cup would actually stand was super-exciting," he recalls. "After such a long time, you have to really believe in an idea and that it can eventually work. It was overwhelming to drink that first coffee out of the cup. It proved to be totally worth the wait."
He's not the only one who thinks so. After just over a year in business, Kaffeeform can't keep up with the demand, routinely selling out of its stock through its website. It's also available in ten shops across Europe.
"It basically all happened through word of mouth," says its founder. "It's amazing to think of some of the places where orders have come from. A lot of individuals, but also a cafe in Saudi Arabia, Ritz Carlton Toronto, and the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo to sell in their museum [gift shop]."
Kaffeeform cooperates with an organisation called Mosaik Berlin, which pairs up small businesses with workers who are mentally and physically disabled, providing them with pay and job experience.
Grounds are picked up in the morning from three roasters in Berlin and brought to Mosaik's headquarters. There, they're dried and compressed for two hours in a special oven by workers, and then packaged up into 400-kilogram bags. From there, the grounds are shipped to a factory in another German state, Baden-Württemburg, where they're mixed with wood grains, biopolymers, and all the natural fibers.
The blend is transferred to Cologne for melting and compression into molds. Eventually, the final product—dainty cups and saucers for sipping espresso—are brought back to Mosaik, where customers package the cups into reused coffee bags and ship them out to customers.
For every cup, around six servings of grounds gets recycled.
Lechner says the social aspect of how the cups are made is just another way that people can feel good about buying such a product.
"Mosaik told me they love the product because it's innovative, but also because it's a nice job for the workers," he says. "[When drying grounds] the whole workshop smells like coffee, and they really like it."
He adds, "Also, for one of the workers, this was completely the right job for her. She has just one moveable arm but with the other one she can spread out the grounds and do the drying. Before she couldn't help with a lot of other projects."
Kaffeeform will soon release larger cappuccino cups, and Lechner is currently working on plans for a travel mug. It will likely need to be crowdfunded, he says, as "the material should be fine, but it really comes down to coming up with a lid that is light and stable."
In the future, the designer also hopes to see Kaffeeform's eco-friendly formula applied to bigger projects that would not only be striking to the eye, but also able to save more grounds from the bottom of trash bins.
"What's next? I'd love to see if we could one day create sheets," he says. "Perhaps they could later be used for furniture in cafés and restaurants."