Coffee lovers that hate waste and enjoy feeling fresh, clean and exfoliated — listen up: Grounded Upcycling makes a simple bar of soap that checks all three boxes.
The idea for the company emerged out a social entrepreneurship course at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where students were asked to develop potential solutions to the problem of organic waste. Undergrads Parker Reposa and Drew Enyedi wanted to create a business that would use food waste as a key input and quickly discovered the potential of coffee grounds — which in recent years have begun being used to make everything from apparel and biofuel to cups and 3D-printing filament. Grounded Upcycling now takes spent grounds from coffee shops in New York City and turns them into aromatic and exfoliating soap bars, face masks and body scrubs.
After I was won over by the bars for their intense exfoliation properties, I caught up with Reposa and Enyedi to learn more about their company and vision for the future.
How did you discover coffee grounds and what does this reveal about the process of using organic waste as input into new products?
Parker Reposa: Grounded Upcycling began with a mission to solve a critical need — to reduce harmful, greenhouse gas-emitting waste streams from entering landfills. In the class, we were tasked with building assumptions about what businesses were doing with their waste and what financial hurdles existed to doing something other than landfilling. In talking to local businesses of all types, we realized that coffee was an extremely addressable waste stream.
Coffee is great because coffee shops naturally separate their coffee grounds from other things. Due to the high-temperature brewing process, coffee grounds are exceptionally clean, so there was no risk of contamination. Also, doing something other than landfilling coffee grounds can be very expensive. The founder of Ancolie, an eco-conscious eatery — one of our first coffee shop partners — was paying a relatively high price for an organic waste company to collect and compost their small volume of spent grounds biweekly. We realized that at a larger scale, it would represent a huge cost. That’s when we decided to figure out what we could do with that waste stream. Coffee grounds can be used in many things, ranging from cosmetics to building materials to fertilizers. We settled on cosmetics, because there was a relatively low bar (pun intended) to testing out products. Everyone can relate to cosmetics, so we realized we could get a product out there quickly, test the interest in the product and awareness about food waste.
How is the soap made?
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Drew Enyedi: The biggest task in making the soap is having a consistent relationship with our coffee partners, and making the collection of coffee grounds as seamless as possible. As a result of the high pressure and temperatures used in brewing, espresso grounds are clean. Once collected, they are dried and dehydrated in the oven to eliminate the risk of mildew. They are then mixed into a soap base and poured into molds to harden. In keeping with the mission of being environmentally friendly, they use a soap base without palm oil, but this has also been a challenge for the formulation.
How have consumers responded to the product?
PR: People love the impact story and how they can tie it back to their own coffee consumption. It’s such a tangible story — people are often surprised at how creative the idea is and many say they’ve never thought of their organic footprint from a single product. There is a movement towards organic waste reduction in general, but it feels more transparent to people when linked to a specific product. People love the ability to calculate how many bars they would have to buy in order to offset their coffee habit. We are working on being able to say clearly how many cups of coffee waste are diverted with each bar.
People also seem quite willing to pay. The bar was first priced at $9, which generated some pushback. Since lowering the price to $7, no one has mentioned the price.
We’ve gotten a lot of feedback as we’ve experimented with different bar formulations. This has helped us iterate and make decisions — like whether to use batch brew or espresso coffee grounds, changing the shape, design ergonomics, and placement of the grounds in the soap.
Your broader goals extend way beyond coffee. How do you see Grounded Upcycling as a partner to companies in combating waste more generally?
DE: We want to inspire people to re-imagine our throwaway culture, which creates an over-abundance of organic waste. New York City alone produces 1 billion pounds of organic waste each year, which makes up roughly 33 percent of all landfill waste and contributes vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere. According to our calculations, 250 million pounds of coffee waste go to landfill every year in New York City alone. This number seems absurdly high? We’ve been conservative in our estimates, but invite anyone to get in touch if they have better data!
PR: With cosmetics, we can only address a small fraction of this. Therefore, the broader goal is to move beyond cosmetics and use a series of similar businesses under different brands to change our view of waste. The current assumption that waste is a spent resource, which is perceived as valueless or seen as a liability, is not correct. Instead, business owners — like coffee shops — should see it as a necessary circular element to what they do.
We want to rethink our throwaway culture and find business models that use as inputs the waste from other businesses. We think it’s silly that businesses would need to pay to get rid of something that still has value locked inside. To realize that value, we want to get good at collecting a large volume of coffee grounds. We are constantly looking for alternative uses that can absorb far higher volumes of the resource.
The goal of Grounded Upcycling is to test this endlessly replicable business model for any spent resource created through industrial means (coffee grounds, beer spent grain, citrus peel extracts, etc). We’d like to eventually set up a marketplace to better align producer "waste" with an upcycling partner or business that can use that resource as an input.
Which comes first — the product or the mission?
PR: The first focus is waste. That said, coffee grounds are a great cosmetic ingredient because they are exfoliating. The residual caffeine in the grounds tightens the skin and has a mildly caffeinating effect. The company also responds to a huge market need following the recent ban on microbeads — many brands are looking for natural exfoliation alternatives that don’t pollute the oceans. Our brand can bring to light the natural exfoliating properties of espresso grounds.
What is your biggest challenge?
PR: Our biggest challenge is achieving scale and impact. Because we are building this first and foremost to solve the problem of coffee waste going to landfill, scale means everything. To really move the needle, we have to sell a massive a mount of product and collect a massive amount of coffee. Moving forward, we want to escalate the amount of coffee waste we divert.
Products made by Grounded Upcycling are currently sold online, and at Ancolie and Think Coffee locations around New York City. It will soon be sold in cosmetic shops and as corporate gifts.