Kaffeeform Reimagines the Coffee Cup and Invents a New Material in the Process.
“At first glance we make coffee cups from coffee grounds... But it goes a bit deeper,” says Anika Paulus, Head of Communications at Kaffeeform, “We actually invented a material, and we are forming everyday objects from it to inspire people to integrate sustainability into their everyday lives.”
The founder of Kaffeeform, Julian Lechner, first considered waste coffee grounds as a potential material whilst studying product design in Italy. He noticed that the waste grounds had a unique consistency which allowed them to be reformed and reshaped.
“And then he thought that there’s a lot of coffee wasted in coffee making, and what happens to all the grounds? He said there must be a way to use the waste as a resource”, So Julian began experimenting with coffee grounds, amongst other materials, in attempts to create a functional coffee cup. It was a long while, however, before he was able to truly master the process enough to produce something that was commercially viable.
“It was four or five years of trial and error,” Anika recounts. “Once he made a cup from sugar which had great form, but you had one coffee and it would break down. And the goal was to have a product that’s very long-lasting and durable, not something that’s one single-use and you throw it away”. So Julian kept trying.
By 2015, and after a lot of experimentation, the process was finally perfected. Kaffeeform was ready to start releasing cups from their newly invented material.
“Around 40% is coffee grounds, so for the cappuccino cup and saucer, you would need about five-to-eight double espresso shots. Then there are the other ingredients and components; recycled beech fibers, cellulose fibers, natural oils, and then it’s hardened with biopolymers.”
The final material is all-natural, plant-based, renewable and recycled. It’s a versatile composite material from which a near-infinite number of products can be produced. “Basically you can use our material to replace almost every possible plastic. Not every, but a lot.”
Although it’s the logical choice to use their coffee ground material to produce coffee cups, for Kaffeeform, their reasoning runs a little deeper than the obvious poetic connection between material and function.
“[The coffee cup] is a strong symbol, and shows that the cycle is close to you. There are the coffee grounds, then it goes back into the cup, and then you drink your coffee out of it again.”
Although this process undoubtedly serves as an elegant representation of the circular economy, it should be noted that following their life cycle, the cups are not currently recyclable through any traditional infrastructure. Due to the unique nature of the material, to be recycled the cups must be sent back to Kaffeeform to be broken down and reused in new cups. Admittedly, this isn’t the most ideal solution to the issue of ‘used’ cups, however, looking forward, Kaffeeform plans to simplify this process.
“We actually want to set up a system with our coffee shops and retailers where people can just drop them off and we take them back into the production cycle. But that’s not 100% set up yet because it’s quite a big step.”
As with any sustainably-minded business, where the materials are sourced from is as important as how they are used. Even when they are waste materials that are being reinvigorated or recycled, the ethics become questionable when said materials originate from a socially irresponsible source.
“We make sure that the coffee grounds meet our high standards”, Anika explains. “[We source the grounds from] a speciality coffee roaster who are known for their transparency along the coffee chain and for paying above fairtrade. They know the farmers, so there are no secrets. This is very important to us to make sure that our resources meet our standards.”
Transport modes and distance travelled profoundly affects the environmental impact of a product’s production. For instance, while a factory may be highly sustainable and environmentally responsible, if they are to fly in their materials from the other side of the world, then any overall sustainability benefits from an ethical factory production may be cancelled out by the carbon emitted during the material’s delivery.
In this regard, Kaffeeform should be commended for their highly-efficient, and carbon-minimal production network.
“We collect the coffee grounds in Berlin through a bike messenger collective called Crow Cycle, and we try to keep our production lines as green and local as possible. It’s all made in Germany. We’re very tight to Berlin, of course, that’s where all the designing is done, but there are no huge batches made in Asia and then shipped with a plane or anything.”
Kaffeeform also partner with Mosaik, a social workshop for disabled people in Kreuzberg who dry and process the coffee grounds before sending them to their production partners in Southern and Western Germany to be molded into cups.
However, more than simply the CO2-minimising benefits, Kaffeeform has other reasons for keeping production local.
“It’s important for us to work with local partners so we can give something back to Berlin. Of course, it would be more efficient and cheaper, and we could scale faster if we did it differently, but we want to grow our company as organically as possible.”
“It’s funny because we are kind of a startup, but we work so differently from a normal startup. We’re not competitive aiming at fast growth and then selling off to do something new. We value more sustainable growth. ‘Doing good’ sounds weird, as for us it’s more about making a lasting impact.”
Thank you to Anika, Julian and the rest of the Kaffeeform team for your positive and inspiring work.
Words by Ewan Waddell