Brewing Sustainability: Turning Spent Coffee Grounds into Biodegradable Packaging

espresso pressed coffee grounds


by | Oct 6, 2023

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In a world where plastic pollution is reaching extremely problematic levels, researchers are on a quest to find sustainable alternatives to this ubiquitous material. One unexpected source of hope has emerged from the daily ritual of billions of coffee lovers around the globe.

Could spent coffee grounds be the answer to our plastic packaging woes? A recent study led by Srinivas Janaswamy, an associate professor in South Dakota State University’s Department of Dairy and Food Science, suggests that coffee grounds could indeed be transformed into biodegradable films with the potential to replace plastics. The innovative research could have significant implications as part of sustainable transitions.

Plastic Predicament

Plastic is a versatile and widely used material, prized for its strength, flexibility, and low production cost. However, its environmental impact is undeniable. Most plastics take an astonishing 700 years to biodegrade in landfills, contributing to a growing global waste problem.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of plastic debris the size of Texas, serves as a grim reminder of the ecological havoc caused by plastic pollution. Moreover, the emergence of microplastics, tiny plastic particles infiltrating our food and water, raises concerns about long-term health effects on humans. A safe, sustainable, and climate-friendly alternative to plastic is imperative.

The Quest for Sustainable Alternatives

Janaswamy has dedicated his research efforts to creating biodegradable substitutes for plastics, often derived from agricultural byproducts. His previous work involved developing films from materials like avocado peels and corn stover. With a focus on sustainability, Janaswamy’s current project centers on the abundant and often wasted resource of spent coffee grounds.

Spent coffee grounds present a compelling case for sustainable packaging material for several reasons. Coffee has increasingly been looked at as a potential source to produce sustainable materials as well as a case study for sustainable agriculture practices, as has been covered recently on this site.

Firstly, coffee and its byproducts are readily available, with more than 8 million tons produced annually. While some coffee grounds are repurposed for composting and gardening, this process consumes excessive oxygen and releases methane, contributing to global warming.

Secondly, as the popularity of chain coffee shops continues to rise, the volume of spent coffee grounds is expected to increase, making their utilization of biodegradable films an eco-friendly and cost-effective solution. Lastly, coffee grounds contain lignocellulosic fibers, the key material needed for creating biodegradable films.

Brewing Biodegradable Films

The process of turning spent coffee grounds into biodegradable films involves extracting lignocellulosic fibers from the grounds and then applying a green chemical modification process to enhance the film’s suitability for packaging. These resulting films exhibit remarkable properties.

They can biodegrade within just 45 days when exposed to soil, all while maintaining high tensile strength. Moreover, the films possess unique characteristics, including the ability to block significant amounts of UV radiation and display antioxidant properties. These attributes open up new potential applications for spent coffee grounds in various industries.

Promising Beginnings

While this research represents the initial phase of converting spent coffee grounds into films, the results are highly promising. “The potential for plastic-replacing films from the widely discarded but plentiful and sustainable spent coffee grounds remains unscathed and exciting toward value creation,” says Janaswamy. Collaborating with Janaswamy on this study is Sajal Bhattarai, an SDSU graduate and a doctoral candidate at Purdue University.

The study, titled Biodegradable, UV-blocking, and Antioxidant Films from Lignocellulosic Fibers of Spent Coffee Grounds, was published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

As the world grapples with the plastic pollution crisis, innovations like these are a reminder that sustainable solutions may be brewing right in the morning coffee cups. The transformation of spent coffee grounds into biodegradable films not only offers a greener path forward but also underscores the immense potential for turning everyday waste into valuable resources for a more eco-conscious future.

Some additional coffee-related sustainability articles can be found at the following links:

ICE Plans Traceability Services to Help Cocoa, Coffee Industry Meet Deforestation Regulations

Nestlé Provides Farmers with Weather Insurance

Enhancing Concrete strength through Coffee waste.


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