BBC Capital

Green coffee shops cut rubbish, but at what cost?

  • A year's waste
    A year of "actual waste" preserved for display in a jar. Most are outside scraps left behind by customers. (Davidjoshuaford.com)
  • Green crusader
    Former cafe manager and Silo Partner Danny Colls. (Davidjoshuaford.com)
  • A relaxing environment
    Patrons relaxing with an afternoon coffee after a busy lunch schedule in Silo Cafe. (Davidjoshuaford.com)
  • A dry compost
    A dry compost is all that is left of food scraps incinerated by Silo's waste dehydration machine. (Davidjoshuaford.com)
  • Waste not, want not
    Biodegradable waste is placed into a dehydrator at the end of the day and returned to Silo's produce suppliers as compost. (Davidjoshuaford.com)
  • Milking profits
    Milk is sourced directly from a dairy farmer and delivered in reusable steel vats. (Davidjoshuaford.com)

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Perched atop a high shelf at Silo Cafe in Melbourne, Australia, a five-litre jar holds an entire year of the sustainable coffee shop's waste — stickers from fruit, plastic caps, and mustard seed bag.

That’s little more than two large soft drink bottles worth of rubbish, even though the cafe has served thousands of cups of coffee and hundreds of lunch-time meals per month.

"I'm turning our rubbish into a sculpture because I want people to see just how little we've created in 12 months,” said Joost Bakker, the cafe’s owner.

Coffee is nearly a worldwide obsession. Some 83% of American adults drink coffee, according to the National Coffee Association.  In Canada, 65% of adults drink coffee, according to the Coffee Association of Canada. When it comes to per capita consumption, Finland, Norway, and Denmark lead with a combined average annual 10kg (22lb) of coffee consumed per person, the International Coffee Association reports.

In an industry where disposable is king — Starbucks can go through as many as 2.3 billion disposable cups per year at its 18,000 stores across the globe — Silo stands out as a nearly zero-waste cafe.

The coffee shop, open since June 2012, is one of a small but growing cadre of low-waste cafes that employ sustainable measures like energy reduction and local food sourcing — while also making a profit. Though ‘going green’ costs more, business owners use sustainable methods to offset the higher expenses in the long term.  There is plenty of room to improve even more, they say.

Costs and benefits

Silo serves its brew in terracotta cups at a long table made from recycled plastic. There are no cardboard cartons or glass bottles: milk, olive oil, and mineral water come in stainless steel vessels.

The main attraction, which draws school groups and curious patrons, is a 360kg (394lb) waste dehydration machine that churns 100kg (220lb) of rubbish into compost every day. Bakker gives the compost to the local growers who sell the cafe its fruit and vegetables.

 “At Silo, I can order any dish and know who has grown the carrots or the lettuce,” cafe owner and green designer Joost Bakker said. “We've gone out of our way to make sure people enjoy the food and coffee first and foremost and secondly it’s sustainable.”

That may be virtuous — and attract a crowd of loyal environmentally aware coffee drinkers — but the upfront cost of going green may be a stumbling block for other would-be green coffee shops. The cost of sustainable design is at least 30% more than setting up a typical shop, although there are some savings that offset the big outlay.

Bakker’s dehydration machine cost AUD $35,000 ($32,349) to purchase and to run and maintain per year. But, he doesn't have to pay the city's AUD $8,000 ($7,394) per-year rubbish collection charge.

The cafe’s sustainable strategies save Bakker and his suppliers money. By keeping milk in reusable steel vats, Bakker spends 10% less than he would by purchasing bottles or plastic containers. The dairy farmer, who picks up the vats from Bakker and fills them at the farm, saves on bottle costs, and passes the savings on to Bakker.

Bakker’s produce suppliers also discount his fruit and vegetable purchases because his deliveries come in reusable plastic crates instead of cardboard boxes. Furthermore, Silo cleans with electrified water, a method that kills bacteria on contact, which saves them $1,000 per week on liquid soap.

The Wega Green Line Espresso Machine Silo uses is outfitted with “self-learning software” that memorizes usage patterns and reprograms the machine automatically to reduce energy consumption, thereby using almost 47% less energy than a standard coffee machine. It retails for almost AUD $10,000 ($9,242), more than a typical coffee shop espresso machine.

For Bakker, that and the Miele Dishwasher, which cost AUD $12,000 ($11,091) and reuses water, were worthwhile purchases not just because they are green, but also because they offset the dehydration machine’s electricity usage.

Silo isn’t alone in its efforts to green up a disposable-heavy business.

In Ontario, Canada, the Tea Room at Queen's University follows a zero-consumer-waste philosophy. The cafe composts some of its biodegradable waste behind the shop, and sends the rest to local composting stations.

Going green can be more expensive. The cafe’s biodegradable cups cost three times more than ordinary paper cups, which are lined with wax or polyethylene and don’t break down when tossed into the trash.

The shop charges about CAD$2.10 ($2.03) for a cup of coffee, not much more than local competitors like chain Tim Hortons, which charges CAD$1.51 ($1.46). People seem willing to pay more: the cafe saw a 23% revenue increase during their last financial year.

Disposable cup addiction

The greatest challenge for sustainable coffee shop owners, by far, has been resolving the disposable coffee cup addiction.

At the Tea Room in Canada, which attracts mostly teachers and students, Sweet said they sell around 250 to-go cups per day. Silo only hands out about 150 biodegradable cups per day, although Bakker wishes all his customers would enjoy their brew in house.

Serving 80 percent of drinks “to go,” even Starbucks is making strides to reduce waste. It has resolved to serve 5% of beverages in reusable tumblers by 2015. This goal requires that coffee drinkers buy in. The tumblers, made of acrylic or stainless steel, cost between $10 and $25.

In 2012, Starbucks customers used personal tumblers 35.8 million times or a mere 1.5% of the time, the company said. But that small usage still saved approximately 726 tonnes (1.6m lb) of paper from the landfill.

At a conference, Bakker recalls speaking about the negative impact of “to-go” coffee only to realise the majority of the crowd sipping from paper cups. No matter how much initiative a single cafe can take, Bakker asserts, making positive changes in the environment also means changing individual habits.

 “You have to be completely obsessed with this or else it doesn't happen,” Bakker said. “We set a golden rule that we will create no waste. If you don't go the whole way then there’s no point.”

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The upfront cost of going green may be a stumbling block for other would-be green coffee shops