Blog Post

Brewing Change: Urb-it Delivers Innovation in Glasgow’s Circular Coffee Economy


October 16, 2023
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Glasgow, a city with its cobblestone streets and impressive Gothic architecture, has always been a breeding ground for far more than just history and culture. During the 17th century, the introduction of coffee laid the groundwork for Glasgow embracing global cultures. Coffee was first introduced into the city way back in October 1673 when the city granted the canny Colonel Walter Whiteford the opportunity to sell coffee for nineteen years. Recognising the extensive opportunities with coffee, Colonel Whiteford shrewdly proceeded to push things further and generated a monopoly to sell coffee in the city for the same nineteen-year period.  

Coffee houses, with their simplistic wooden furniture and dim lighting, became more than just venues to welcome a warm beverage on a cold winter’s day. They evolved into spaces where minds met, ideas blended, and groundbreaking concepts were born. The spread of coffee's rich aroma through Glasgow's streets blended into the city's thirst for innovation. As a city steeped in shipbuilding history since the 1770s, it has always been a powerhouse of forward thinkers. So much so, that the city has been awarded for its commitment to innovation on multiple occasions. So it should come as no surprise that a city with a reputation for innovation should take a thought leadership position on the framework of a major global trend in sustainability - circular economies. This happened earlier this summer with a groundbreaking initiative to recycle Glasgow’s unused coffee grounds. 

The "Grounds for Recycling" Initiative 

Led by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Glasgow Life and Zero Waste, Rebecca Ricketts originally crafted and led the initiative. The initiative drew its inspiration from the remarkable success of 'Plate Up For Glasgow', a movement aimed at shedding light on the pervasive problem of food waste on a global scale. The timing of the campaign's launch was strategic, aligning with the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships hosted in Glasgow throughout July and August. The core objective was clear: to tackle a pressing concern confronting the hospitality and tourism sector, specifically the responsible disposal of surplus coffee grounds.

From initial research with business owners, Rebecca’s team found that while some businesses had begun to explore sustainable alternatives, most found coffee grounds to be wet, heavy, and very difficult to dispose of responsibly. Historically, leftover coffee grounds would all too often be placed in food waste bins, which in turn would make their unceremonious way to traditional food disposal sites. Here, waste would create methane gas, ultimately creating a global warming potential 27 times greater than carbon dioxide. It’s a problem that the team wanted to address directly. Using a cycling theme, the initiative of linking the cycling and coffee communities was born. 

Over 60 cycle-friendly cafes and local roasters agreed to collaborate, with prominent Glasgow cafes such as Gordon Street CoffeeThe Good Coffee CartelSWG3, and Dear Green Coffee leading the way (You can see the full list of the great participating venues). Throughout the initiative, these 60 venues redirected all used coffee grounds from waste bins to Glasgow's Botanic Gardens. This was the great first step in building a sustainable circular economy. It didn’t end there ... 

Instead of using conventional transport to deliver the grounds, the last piece of a great sustainable puzzle was to have sustainable delivery. 

Urb-it! - the natural fit for the initiative 

At Urb-it we were delighted to be selected as the sustainable last-mile delivery partner for the initiative. Through the use of low-impact cargo bikes, supported by localised hubs, our great delivery teams already use cycle lanes across Glasgow to deliver packages sustainably. This is mirrored across other major cities in the UK and Europe. Instead of diesel trucks spewing fumes as they wait in traffic congestion, Urb-it’s teams pedal their way to sustainable delivery. 

Additionally, for our Glasgow-based team, there was one additional feature that resonated with the Grounds for Recycling Initiative. 

As Terry Gibb, Urb-it’s Glasgow city manager explained “As a B-corp, sustainability is one of our core values. In May this year we partnered with Dutch-based solar-powered e-cargo trike manufacturer - Need the Globe - to test its world-first Sunrider e-cargo trike here in Glasgow. The Sunrider is the world’s first self-charging Solar Cargo E-Bike which will help us and our e-commerce clients reduce our respective carbon footprints even further. It was an absolute delight and pleasure for us to get behind such a great sustainability initiative with Rebecca and her team” 

We arranged the pickup and delivery of the grounds from the supporting cafes and sustainably delivered them to the great teams at the Botanic Gardens, who then transformed the grounds into compost, which was used to: 

  • foster carbon capture, 
  • soil rejuvenation, and 
  • bolstering wildlife and biodiversity. 

Our fantastic Glasgow courier Ben collecting the used coffee grounds

To add the final sustainable icing on the cappucino, Jenny Graham, the fastest female to circle the earth on a bike, also got behind the project. Jenny, a Glaswegian herself, said: “I struggle to think how much coffee I had during my world record attempt, but it perhaps will match the 8.5 tonnes that will be collected during the UCI World Championships!” You can see Jenny’s prowess in riding the Urb-it e-cargo trike in the Initiative’s Launch Video

It was great to see those who were passionate about cycling, coffee, and sustainability supported the initiative by visiting the participating venues, thereby championing eco-friendly businesses, nourishing the Botanic Gardens, and savouring a premium coffee experience.

Jenny Graham taking part in the Grounds for Recycling initiative

The Resounding Success of the Initiative 

The data from the initiative has just been released in The Grounds for Recycling Evaluation Report, which is well worth the read. The TLDR of the report highlights the positive outcomes of the initiative: 

  • carbon emissions from the disposal of coffee grounds fell by 98% for participating businesses – this was the equivalent volume of CO2 captured by around 111 trees a month.
  • Over the 20-days of the initiative, 4.7 tonnes of coffee were collected by Urb-it’s couriers.
  • 93% of the participating businesses reported a positive impact on their food waste management throughout campaign. 
  • 100% of businesses reported a desire to be involved in similar sustainability campaigns.

Perhaps the greatest discovery from the initiative was that the sustainable campaign also made economic sense. The report highlights that disposing of wet coffee typically costs hospitality venues a staggering £10,000 per venue each year. Recycling coffee grounds not only makes sense for the environment it makes sense for the bottom line, and we all hope this initiative can represent a template for other cities across the globe, which is already beginning to see growth in circular economies for coffee. 

Used coffee grounds being stored at the Glasgow's Botanic Gardens

The Power of Circular Economies for Coffee

Circular economies have at their core the idea that resources are kept in use for as long as possible, maximising their value and then recovering and regenerating products at the end of their serviceable life. The warm aroma of coffee, which wafts through streets and homes across the globe, highlights some positive effects of repurposing coffee grounds. 

Here in Glasgow, as part of the Grounds for Recycling initiative, the Drygate Brewery created a latte pale-ale as part of their exotic flavours within their own in-house brewery. As we travel even further afield,  some very wide-ranging use cases for coffee grounds begin to emerge.   

In Taiwan, for example, innovation flourishes in the form of S.Café from Singtex, a Taiwanese fabric manufacturer. Singtex meticulously crafts unique yarns from the remnants of coffee grounds. A delicate balance of low temperature and intense pressure combines to produce an environmentally-conscious patented method, culminating in the creation of the S.Café nano coffee grounds. When these minuscule coffee particles are blended with yarns, the fabric’s surface area expands dramatically. This enhancement creates great capability for water dispersion. Furthermore, the myriad of micropores dotting the S.Café nano coffee grounds, soak up unwanted body scents and serve as a shield against harmful UV rays. 

Moving to the US, what started out as a self-sustaining organic farm in Colorado, with a "reap what you sow" mentality, resulted in Coalatree integrating sustainable practices into producing quality products. Starting with their own workwear they launched their first line of sustainable clothing in 2010. Since then, they have evolved further by blending coffee grounds and recycled plastics to save thousands of kilos of historic waste from both landfills and water systems. As of October 2022, Coalatree estimated they saved 139,878 plastic bottles and 82,301 cups of coffee grounds from entering the traditional areas of waste disposal. 

Finally, another fine example is from Germany with Kaffeeform - founded originally in 2009. Driven by the desire to create sustainable materials from coffee grounds, they wanted to create an alternative to plastics. After five years of experimentation, they created a unique formula to recycle old coffee into new, with the birth of their Kaffeeform Cups.

These are just the tip of the innovation iceberg that spotlights the potential lying in the residue of our daily brew. Coffee grounds, once considered mere waste, are taking centre stage in circular economies, echoing the world's shared commitment to sustainability and resourcefulness.

Everyone involved in the Grounds for Recycling Initiative is super excited by the possibilities that have opened up and how much passion there was in Glasgow and beyond to support the initiative. Here at Urb-it, we would urge any business to think about how they can embrace not only sustainable ideas like our Grounds for Recycling Initiative but all forms of sustainability and circular economies. 

If we all play our part, we can make the world a better cup of coffee safe in the knowledge that the coffee grounds are not going to waste; instead, they are being recycled and repurposed for ongoing good. 

All the Urb-it team are delighted to have supported the great Grounds for Recycling Initiative here in Glasgow and thank the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce team for their passion and drive to make this a remarkable success. We are very keen to explore any ideas from our clients, partners or others who may wish to embrace sustainability-based initiatives and circular economies. Click here to get in touch.


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