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Cophenol: the start-up that wants to recycle coffee waste


Since 2014, Emmanuel Thiéry, a young graduate with degrees in neuroscience and physics with chemistry, has been working to establish Cophenol, a start-up dedicated to recycling coffee waste. The idea is to develop an innovative process to produce organic fertiliser from coffee waste.

Coffee plant – Credit: thinkstock – passion4nature

With an output of more than 7.4 million tonnes each year , the global production of coffee is second in value only to oil. Recovery of coffee waste is a huge challenge; while some start-ups specialise in recycling coffee grounds, this is only a small proportion of the waste generated. Indeed, coffee production does not use the entire fruit of the coffee bush, which is similar to a cherry: the kernel alone is retained and the rest (the pulp) is either buried or discarded into rivers and streams.
The decomposition of the waste produced can, therefore, result in methane emissions, an imbalance in the nutrient-content of soil or the pollution of groundwater.

Cophenol: from coffee waste… to “biochar”

Cophenol aims to develop a process that uses pyrolysis to convert coffee waste into “biochar” (bio-charcoal, charcoal for agricultural use) a compound that can be used particularly to enrich and de-acidify soil. It can also be used as a fertiliser, in combination with other organic materials.
The benefits of this solution would be as eco-friendly as they would be economical:

– the harmful effects of not treating coffee waste would be eliminated;
– the start-up wishes to show that using the organic fertiliser produced would significantly increase the yield of the crops to which it is applied.
– finally, using biochar would result in an overall reduction in CO2 emissions, enabling producers to become certified as environmentally-responsible; according to Emmanuel Thiéry, “a certified producer can charge up to 30% more for their coffee”.

On a practical level, Cophenol intends to forge close partnerships with the Brazilian co-operatives that represent the majority of the country’s small and medium-sized growers. These co-operatives currently supply the coffee growers with fertiliser; therefore, they have the necessary contacts and logistics to transport the coffee waste to bio-refineries in their locality, where they would be made into fertiliser before being sold back to the plantations.

How did this project come about?

The Cophenol adventure began in 2014, as a student project at the Climate KIC summer school, a European organisation for the promotion of initiatives to help combat climate change.
The team behind the project, originally comprised of 6 members, started thinking about the possibility of recovering coffee waste, and this initial thinking resulted in the outline of a preliminary process for converting coffee pulp into products that could be used to manufacture paper and plastic.
Whereas various other members of the team refocused their attention on their studies, Emmanuel Thiéry decided to continue with the project. His meeting with Mariana Bittencourt, who quickly joined him in the adventure, resulted in a preliminary field-study in Brazil. The data obtained enabled them to re-orientate the project towards a process for converting the waste into “biochar”, as Emmanuel Thiéry explains: “When we were over there, we realised that the growers badly needed to reduce their fertiliser costs.”

And now?

The project is still in the pre-trial phase. In order to be sure of the properties that the fertiliser produced will bring to the soil “we reckon we still need one or two years’ further study” explains Emmanuel Thiéry, who will be conducting tests on samples of coffee waste brought back from Brazil. The start-up then plans to complete studies to ensure the project is economically viable.