December 4, 2014

Coffee interrelates you with the rest of the world

“Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (A Christmas Sermon on Peace, 1967.)

Martin Luther King Jr. once touched on a concept that requires utmost awareness and attention: interrelation. During his Christmas Sermon on Peace in 1967, he said: “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny …” This might be a nice quote to post on your Facebook page, but it actually reflects a powerful truth: even some of our seemingly simple actions have an effect on others and the natural resources on which we all depend. Processing coffee today, in fact, has multiple impacts on societies around the world and, since it is possible to generate energy from its waste, making it sustainable might trigger immediate benefits for people and the environment.

So that cup of coffee on which you rely to jump start your day – how does it interrelate with healthy rivers and energy generation?

Coffee processing, and in particular the practice of wet method extraction common in Central America, is energy intensive and demands large quantities of water. Producing a single cup of our beloved Arabica coffee has a water footprint of 140 litres, perplexing if you think that only 1% of the water resources are available for human consumption.

There are two facts essentially unknown to us as coffee lovers; the first one is that wastewater generated from coffee processing is rich in organic matter – which can be used to generate energy – and the second one is that wastewater is often discharged untreated into the environment, thereby not only wasting its energy potential but also polluting ground water, basins, coastal areas and soils. Coffee wastewater affects rural communities who depend on local basins to access drinking water. It also impacts fauna and flora, locally and often also downstream where coastal areas and marine life can be harmed. Untreated coffee wastewater generates methane and carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to climate change.

Unfortunately, these negative consequences are so far not considered in the cost of coffee, and neither are the economic benefits that extracting its energy potential could bring – or the long term advantages of not polluting the environment. Evidently, there is a lack of interrelation between the real cost of coffee, the price paid to producers and the cost we pay for it.

UTZ Certified, an international certification program, decided in 2010 to look for funds and initiate a project that would explore the feasibility of treating coffee wastewater and generating energy from it. The results of what became a major four-year project in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, range from preventing local deforestation of native trees to better indoor environments for families who replaced firewood with domestic gas stoves for cooking. In terms of energy, across the region seven million people still have limited or no access to electricity. Renewable energy coming from the coffee communities’ own main economic activity of processing coffee, could be one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to address this issue.

Every coffee consuming country interrelates with Latin America, since it is the continent that produces around 70% of the world’s coffee and is home to 31% of the world’s freshwater resources. That means that the wellbeing of forests and rivers located on the other side of the planet is essential to stabilise the global climate and maintain the water cycle to have a normal pattern of rain in our country. So yes, we are inevitably interrelated to exotic forests and wild rivers when we sip our cup of coffee.

Coffee production engages over 100 million people around the world and depends on the stability of our already disturbed climate to subsist. The Energy from Coffee Waste Water Project explores a solution for protecting water resources and everything that water knits: people, animals and plants. However, climate change is an unpredictable phenomenon, which means that what might be a solution today might not be an applicable one for tomorrow.

Making ourselves conscious about what’s behind our cup of coffee and the impact of our individual decisions is a way to interrelate ourselves with the other side of the world. We can contribute to protect the natural resources of coffee producing countries by being aware of what is the process behind that cup of coffee on our table and demand for sustainable certified coffee; since, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “When you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, it’s poured into your cup by a South American”.

About the project:

The Energy from Coffee Wastewater project aims at preventing polluted water from coffee production to be released untreated into ecosystems while also generating energy from waste. In 2012 it has been awarded by the Sustainability Award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and in 2010 by the Global Sustainable Biomass Fund in the Netherlands. The project is funded by Hivos and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Overview & Results

19 pilot sites in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were chosen to illustrate the benefits of implementing effective wastewater treatment systems on different types of farms and to ensure adaptability and scalability of the initiative. Results achieved during the pilot are summarized below, together with the criteria upon which the sites were selected. Costs mentioned are approximate and intended as a guide.

Biomass for energy as a solution

The Energy from Coffee Wastewater in Central America project offers a solution to these ongoing issues by focusing on the effective treatment of wastewater through installed water treatment systems. Methane generated by the waterwaste is captured in the system, providing a clean and safe biogas for farmers to run pulping machines, heat kitchen stoves and other appliances. This lowers both the carbon and water footprint of coffee production and provides environmental, social and economic benefits to farmers and their communities, as well as to the entire coffee sector.

Technology used

• Cleaner Production Practices2 implemented to reduce water consumption during processing based on principles of Reject, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Treat and Dispose.

• Installation of anaerobic systems to treat highly contaminated coffee waste water.

• Methane generated during the decomposition process captured in the reactor and used as the clean and safe fuel to run pulping machines, kitchen stoves, lamps etc.

• Low maintenance system, easy to operate and can be owned and managed by the beneficiaries.


During the successful pilot phase, UTZ Certified gained the knowledge and practical expertise required to install and implement wastewater treatment systems across multiple sites. As such, the initiative is now ready to progress from pilot project to further expansion in and beyond Central America.

The results of the pilot sites illustrate how Energy from Coffee Wastewater in Central America contributes to reducing the negative environmental impact of coffee processing and provides the opportunity for farmers and their community to improve their livelihood. The initiative offers to the entire coffee supply chain the opportunity to jointly build an environmentally and economically sustainable coffee sector.

If you are interested to know more about this initiative, please contact:
Tel: +31 20 530 80 00
1. These are estimations of construction costs to scale a similar project in the same region based on our experience through this pilot project.
Construction costs are site and context specific
2. “Guide for Cleaner Production Practices” is an existing tool that offers a clear and simple analysis of the stages needed to develop a Cleaner Production Program for wet mills on farm and industry level. Available in Spanish only. Guide developed by ACERES for SNV – Solidaridad, 2009



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