Turning Coffee Waste into Thermoplastics with CoffeeFrom

Published on 2024-06-14

Startup Story

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Discover how CoffeeFrom transforms coffee waste into eco-friendly thermoplastics, revolutionizing sustainability and reducing environmental impact. Join us for an inspiring journey of innovation with CEO Laura Gallo.

Transforming Coffee Waste into Sustainable Thermoplastics: The Birth of CoffeeFrom

At CoffeeFrom, we are tackling the dual environmental challenges of coffee waste and plastic pollution through a circular approach. Recognizing that post-industrial coffee grounds make up over 90 percent of roasted coffee's byproducts, we saw an opportunity to repurpose this organic waste into polymer matrices, creating sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics that can be used in various food contact applications. By transforming coffee waste into valuable raw materials, we aim to reduce the demand for virgin materials in the plastic supply chain, thus mitigating the environmental impact associated with their extraction and production. Our journey began with Il Giardinone, a Milan-based social enterprise focused on inclusive environmental services since 1996. The pivotal moment for us came during Expo 2015, when we collaborated with Lavazza and Novamont in Torino to repurpose coffee grounds for mushroom cultivation, laying the foundation for what would become CoffeeFrom. The following year, we launched Fungo Box, a circular economy project that used coffee waste from Lavazza's bars during the Expo to create kits for self-producing fresh mushrooms. Over the years, we strengthened our expertise in collecting and transforming coffee waste, which eventually led to our new vision. In 2019, we conceived the idea of transforming industrial coffee grounds into new materials, marking the beginning of CoffeeFrom. 


The Production Process

we take 600 tons of post-industrial coffee waste annually from major food industry players across central Europe. This waste is processed in our plant just outside Milan, transforming it into an input for plastic compounds. These compounds are then supplied to our partner, Nexeo Plastics, a leading compounder and distributor of coffee waste-based pellets and granules in the EMEA market. The coffee waste is blended with selected polymers to create CoffeeFrom materials. Currently, we produce three types of materials: CoffeeFrom Bio, CoffeeFrom Eco, and CoffeeFrom Strong. CoffeeFrom Bio, our first material, is 100% biodegradable, comprising coffee grounds and PLA, a bio-based and renewable material. CoffeeFrom Eco is made from 100% recycled materials, including recycled low-density polyethylene and coffee grounds, making it flexible and lightweight. CoffeeFrom Strong, made from high-density polyethylene and coffee grounds, boasts excellent mechanical properties, rigidity, and resistance to high temperatures. These materials are available for companies looking to adopt sustainable solutions. The food industry is our primary focus, as it presents the greatest challenge and opportunity. We take coffee waste from the food industry and transform it into materials that can be used to manage their food waste, particularly with CoffeeFrom Strong, which is food contact certified. This means it can be used safely for packaging. The compounders play a crucial role in producing CoffeeFrom pellets, which are then distributed, earning us royalties on their sales. Additionally, we see significant potential in sectors such as interior design, automotive, and fashion, which are increasingly sensitive to sustainability. These industries are piloting our CoffeeFrom pellets to create products like packaging, hangers, shoes, and car interiors. While we are at the beginning of this journey, we are optimistic about seeing major companies launching products made from CoffeeFrom pellets in the coming months.


Environmental Impact

Annually, over 20 million tons of coffee waste are produced worldwide. At CoffeeFrom, we’ve developed a solution that can significantly mitigate this issue by recycling coffee waste into thermoplastic materials. This process saves up to 3.4 million kilograms of CO2 annually for the food industry by integrating coffee waste into the plastic supply chain. By utilizing our materials, we can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent for every kilogram of pellets made from coffee byproducts. We have also conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study on our CoffeeFrom coffee cup, which we will soon share with the public. Our materials offer substantial environmental benefits by transforming coffee grounds, typically destined for landfills, into new thermoplastics, thereby reducing CO2 emissions and the reliance on virgin fossil-based plastics. Born from the initiative of a social enterprise, CoffeeFrom embodies a philosophy of industrial symbiosis, leveraging cross-sector values and resources to drive sustainability. The response from the market has been overwhelmingly positive. We have attracted interest not only from the coffee industry but also from the automotive and fashion sectors globally. When we first presented our prototype coffee cup three years ago during Milan Design Week, the feedback was impressive. Companies were eager to know more about our materials, their pricing, and the potential for collaboration on sustainable projects. They were interested in integrating our coffee waste-based polymers into their supply chains to enhance sustainability. This strong market interest underscores the demand for innovative, eco-friendly materials and validates our vision of a more sustainable future through the circular economy.


Success Stories and Challenges in transforming Coffee Waste into Sustainable Thermoplastics

We are immensely proud of the journey and success of CoffeeFrom. Our strategy to enter the market involved designing and investing in a product that symbolizes our mission. We created a coffee cup, taking coffee waste full circle—from the grounds back to a cup for drinking coffee. This coffee cup, crafted from both CoffeeFrom Bio and CoffeeFrom Strong materials, is a testament to our project and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Compasso d'Oro prize, a renowned design award in Italy. This product not only showcased the potential of our materials but also generated significant interest in the market, blending beauty, design, sustainability, and social impact into a single product.

Our journey has not been without challenges. Like all startups, we faced a long and arduous process to bring our concept to market. Legal and regulatory hurdles, particularly in Italy and Europe, regarding the use of byproducts in industrial supply chains, were significant obstacles. However, the regulatory landscape is evolving rapidly, and we were able to seize market opportunities. Convincing the players in our supply chain about the project's value was another major challenge. When we introduced our coffee cup to the market, the response was overwhelmingly positive, impressing CEOs and company presidents involved in our pilot projects.

Looking ahead, our ambition is to create a profound impact. With a background in economics, I have always believed in incorporating social impact into entrepreneurial activities while ensuring environmental sustainability. I advocate for industrial symbiosis, where waste from one company becomes a valuable input for another, creating an economically sustainable and legally compliant process. Our goal is to market all 600 tons of coffee waste we manage today and expand to 3 million tons of granules. We aim to influence the automotive, fashion, and food packaging industries, driving them towards more sustainable practices. I believe that in the next few years, we will witness significant changes, and I am committed to being part of this transformation.

 The story of CoffeeFrom is a testament to the potential of innovative solutions in addressing environmental challenges and promoting sustainability.




About the author

Laura Gallo