Published 4 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Grounded Upcycling
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
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.
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.
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
but this has also been a challenge for the formulation.
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
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.
DE: We want to inspire people to re-imagine our throwaway
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
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,
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.
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
— 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.
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.
Published Apr 26, 2019 11am EDT / 8am PDT / 4pm BST / 5pm CEST
Mia Overall is a sustainable business consultant and founder of Overall Strategies, based in New York City.