Using Coffee Waste to Revolutionize the
Bioplastics Industry: Unspent

What if we told you that the steaming cup of coffee you drink every morning could contribute to creating more sustainable materials like bioplastics or bioleather? Sounds too good to be true, right?! Well, at Unspent we are making this idea a reality with our COPOXEE™ biobased material, which comes from unspent coffee grounds. 

What exactly are unspent coffee grounds? 

In the US, we often refer to the wet coffee ground residue that remains after brewing a cup of coffee as spent coffee grounds. But these grounds are not spent. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the coffee grounds’ starting material is used to create a cup of coffee. Then the remaining 90% is considered “spent” or waste by most people and coffee manufacturers today. We want to do something about it! Unspent is the first company to turn coffee grounds into a biobased material called a plasticizer. In this article, we’ll dive into why a plasticizer from unspent coffee grounds is a promising solution to problems in the bioplastics industry, and why we are so passionate about this work.

What are bioplastics?

Plastics have become deeply ingrained in our daily lives. However, their widespread usage has led to a growing global waste crisis. Addressing this challenge involves exploring various solutions, one of which is the adoption of bioplastics. First, let’s break down the definition of bioplastics. Some people refer to bioplastics as plastics that come from renewable sources and have a similar structure to petroleum-based plastics, which makes them non-biodegradable. Others refer to bioplastics as biobased materials that can also biodegrade. In either case, bioplastics are beneficial in solving the plastic crisis and have benefits and challenges.

At Unspent, when we refer to bioplastics, we’re referring to plastics derived from renewable sources that are also capable of biodegradation. While definitions may vary across companies, we prioritize both of these key characteristics. These bioplastic materials present significant advantages over traditional petroleum-based plastics, including expedited decomposition in landfills, lower environmental footprint, and reduced reliance on petroleum resources. Despite these promising aspects, hurdles persist in bioplastic production, including issues with processability, durability, high production costs, and competition with food-related raw materials essential for sustaining a growing population. Here we discuss just some of the challenges and opportunities inherent in bioplastics production and outline the role of Unspent in this domain.

What key challenges in bioplastics are we addressing at Unspent?

Bioplastics face challenges related to their production and performance. One major issue lies in their reliance on food streams for sourcing, predominantly derived from crops like sugar cane, starch, and pure oils. This reliance raises concerns about diverting valuable food resources towards non-food applications, triggering ethical dilemmas and exacerbating food scarcity issues. Another challenge is that bioplastics often fall short in terms of their mechanical properties, exhibiting brittleness and a lack of flexibility compared to petroleum-based plastics. This inherent brittleness poses obstacles in their widespread adoption, hindering their ability to fully match the performance standards set by traditional plastics. Overcoming these challenges demands innovative solutions that address both the sourcing and material properties of bioplastics, ensuring their viability as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics.

Unspent is confronting these challenges head-on. Our revolutionary approach is to develop a plasticizer sourced from a waste material instead of a food source. We are repurposing coffee waste, which would otherwise end up in landfills or composted at best, to create a sustainable alternative to plastic production. This innovative process not only mitigates waste disposal issues but also contributes to the circular economy by transforming waste into valuable resources. By utilizing coffee waste as a raw material, we’re not only reducing the environmental impact associated with plastic production but also creating additional income opportunities for coffee manufacturers. This innovation fosters economic sustainability within the coffee community, offering a new revenue stream while simultaneously addressing the challenges of bioplastics sourcing. Moreover, by providing a cost-effective alternative to conventional food-derived plasticizers, we’re helping to make bioplastics more accessible and affordable, thus driving forward the transition toward a more sustainable future. Through our endeavors, we aim to revolutionize the bioplastics industry, enhancing the flexibility, performance, and eco-friendliness of these materials, and paving the way towards a greener and more sustainable world.

Bioplastics represent a promising and sustainable alternative to traditional plastics, due to their compostability, biodegradability, and recyclability. Despite the challenges, such as high production costs and poor quality, the advantages, including eco-friendly and sustainable nature, and low toxicity, position them as a crucial factor in the shift towards a circular economy. With technological advancements and an increased focus on sustainability, the viability of bioplastics may surpass that of traditional plastics. Unspent understands the challenges, has created solutions, and envisions a world where no coffee grounds go to waste!

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in reading more:

  1. PLOS BIOLOGY. Are bioplastics the solution to the plastic pollution problem? 2023.
  2. Nature Reviews materials. Bioplastic for a circular economy. 2022.