Can coffee stimulate renewable energy in Central America?
Turning waste water from coffee farms into biogas cuts down on pollution and provides sustainable energy. Is there a catch?
Coffee is the second most-valuable commodity in the world and in the year 2010 global consumption reached 8bn kg. However, many of us may not consider the negative environmental impact around the morning cup of coffee we rely on to start the day.
Waste water generated from coffee wet-mill processing, which uses large amounts of water to remove the fruit of the seed, is often discharged untreated into the environment. This process pollutes ground water, basins and soils and affects rural communities’ drinking water, as well as local fauna and flora, and marine life in coastal areas. What’s more, it has also been discovered that coffee waste water generates a considerable amount of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.
But coffee waste water is rich in organic matter, which can be used to generate energy via anaerobic decomposition.
At present, the negative environmental impacts of waste water are not considered in the cost of coffee, and neither are the economic benefits that extracting its energy potential could bring. Newly developed processes for generating energy from coffee waste water treat the fluid by-product to ensure that it re-enters the biosphere without causing damage. These processes essentially create a circular economy.
Latin America produces around 70% of the world’s coffee and is home to 31% of all freshwater resources. Despite the region’s water wealth – rivers, lakes and subterranean aquifers – there are no effective national management plans for water resources, which continuously suffer deterioration due to human activity. Seven million people still have limited or no access to electricity across the region.
In 2010, UTZ Certified, an international certification programme for sustainable agriculture, decided to implement the Energy from Coffee Wastewater project in Central America, aiming to generate energy, tackle climate change, and protect ecosystems.
The project has been implemented in a range of differently-sized
farms in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, using tailor-made coffee
waste water treatment systems. Bio-digesters were installed to generate
biogas by decomposition of the organic matter. In small and medium-sized
coffee facilities, farmers were able to use the biogas created to power
stoves for cooking. In avoiding the release of polluted water into the
surroundings, odours and pests are kept at bay and the local
biodiversity is protected. What’s more, by substituting firewood,
farmers benefit from healthier indoor environments and help to reduce
deforestation in their area. At large-scale facilities the biogas is
used as fuel to power de-pulping machinery, water pumps, and for drying
According to the WWF’s future energy scenario – which suggests that it is possible to reach 100% of renewable supply
by 2050 – bioenergy generation not only meets the remaining energy
demand after using other renewable options but also reduces greenhouse
gas emissions by 85%.
Lessons learned from the project have been reflected in the UTZ Certified’s code of conduct – a set of guidelines for obtaining a certification for sustainable
agriculture, with the aim of promoting better practices in other coffee
Transforming coffee waste water into energy is not yet an attractive
business case for the farmer or for the industry since it is considered
to be a high investment without a profitable return in the short term.
For this reason, these projects are funded by third-parties such as the
Dutch ministry of economic affairs.
Coffee production engages over 100 million people around the world and according to the latest Coffee Barometer the effects of climate change make its future totally unpredictable.
While making coffee sustainable triggers immediate benefits for people,
the surrounding environment and, in the longer term, the industry, its
unpredictable future means it may not be the answer to the energy
crisis. It is, however, an available solution to transform potential
pollutants into opportunities.
In order to succeed, these types of projects must be driven by the
mutual interest of governments and all actors involved along the coffee
supply chain. In this way, a circular economy in which waste is viewed
as an asset, and natural resources are protected, may become the norm.