Coffee is the preferred caffeinated beverage of many of the world’s population, but the energy boost we get from our java comes at a price to the environment. Coffee processing can lead to polluted water and soil and toxic emissions, particularly methane.
UTZ Certified is a coffee, tea and cocoa farming nonprofit based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, which helps farmers implement sustainable farming practices to benefit the environment and their own earning power.
Because of their work with coffee growers, particularly in Latin America where 70 percent of the world’s coffee is grown, they knew firsthand the issues that come with untreated coffee wastewater (the water that’s used during the wet mill process). Focusing on small landowners, they started a pilot project in 2010 to work with local farming co-operatives to identify pilot farms and install biodigesters — anaerobic reactors that can turn waste into energy. To date, they’ve got 25 units up and running, mostly in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Vera Espindola Rafael, UTZ’s Latin American representative, spoke with Not Impossible Now to explain why coffee wastewater needs to be treated and how it can be used to help coffee farmers at the same time.
NIN: I bet many dedicated coffee drinkers don’t realize that their morning cuppa is contributing to environmental damage. How is coffee processing bad for the environment?
Vera Espindola Rafael: The problem primarily is in the amount of water that’s being used as well as the dirty water. What happens is because there’s so much acidity and bacteria in that wastewater, when you dump it in a river or a field, it negatively affects the water and soil. You can see this in a field because there’s not much green and actually no flora and fauna.
So the acidity is so high, nothing can grow. Why doesn’t that water get properly treated?
Rafael: It’s a complex treatment. It comes with a high cost because when you say, okay, let’s treat wastewater, one of the most common practices is to basically dig a hole, dump the water in it, and that’s it. You’ve reduced a bit of the affectation but you’re not treating it 100 percent. Although it’s better than dumping that water in a river, if you want to compare practices, because many times those rivers go through a village and people use that water for their household use. I have even heard stories of certain wet mills that are quite big and during the harvest season, that water it is full of this waste. You can actually see the skin of the coffee in the river. It’s not a solution for a long-term point of view.
Can you describe energy production and usage on the small Latin American coffee farms you partnered with?
Rafael: The small holders we worked with are quite remote; it was specifically these types of farmers we wanted to target. These farmers are sometimes so far they don’t have electricity. For cooking, they use firewood, which is a very common practice, and it’s dangerous for your health because of smoke inhalation. For a week’s household running of the stove, they need to collect wood about four times a week. Our immediate thought was the stove can run on biogas, and there you attack the issue of health as well as the firewood angle.
Why and how did UTZ come up with the idea to create a viable means of creating energy from coffee wastewater?
Rafael: In 2008, we were working on project with a Dutch NGO called Solidaridad and one of the issues was about treating wastewater. An engineer with that project told us if you capture that gas produced by anaerobic treatment systems well, you can actually use it. We knew it had been done before but nothing as widespread as ours. We wanted to understand small, medium and large scale because the majority of the coffee is processed by small holders but it’s the large wet mills that produce a lot of wastewater. We didn’t want to just tackle one.
Coffee growing and processing is still a very traditional and manual method. Can you describe one of your pilot sites — how did you select a farm, how did it effect the family of farmers?
Rafael: There was a Nicaraguan household and they didn’t have electricity. I think there was three hectares of coffee, a few cows and a few other crops. The farmer wasn’t convinced of the idea, but he said, “I’ll give it a try.” He recognized that it was becoming much more difficult to get firewood and he also recognized in some dry periods there is less water than there used to be. Farmers see firsthand the effects of climate change, and he wanted to care for his land.
It was a challenge to get the unit set up because he’s quite removed from the capital — it’s about five hours by car. The unit took three months to install. The biodigester works during the harvest with wastewater, and it works outside the harvest with cow manure. It works the whole year round.
Were there any issues with the installation and maintenance?
Rafael: We made a manual on how to maintain the biodigester with a troubleshooting section. A farmer may not have finished elementary school, but he can follow what to do. Of course, there is the co-operative and phone numbers for technical help.
How much does a unit cost?
Rafael: It’s about economies of scale. The more we buy, the cheaper they get. I think the most expensive was $900, and the cheapest when we ordered more was around $300. The construction costs with the materials, etc., for a small holding is about $2,000. That’s a bit of an average. We do believe that if we get the opportunity to set up the project again, we can drop the cost to $800.
For some, especially smaller farmers, that might be a lot of money. Is it likely that these or similar wastewater treatment units will become widespread?
Rafael: That’s been the goal. The cooperatives could make loans for this, or just make an investment. We have talked with these cooperatives and asked them, and the majority said yes. We have been speaking to Root Capital, and they have a certain loan called Green Tech Loan, they have included this biodigester for wastewater. They recognize it as a viable technology. But it is a choice for every cooperative to make.
What are the next steps for this project?
Rafael: We wanted to learn about applying the same technology in Peru and Brazil. So we approached two private sector parties for support, and now we have a pilot site in Peru and one in Brazil. There are some cultural differences. The area we’re working in Peru, they don’t have cattle. And, of course, our main objective is this be used the whole year round, so it’s a very rural area. It’s about 24 hours travel from the capital. So you need to think about logistics if you want to scale up.
Is this a project UTZ wants to expand to any countries in Africa?
Rafael: We’re applying for funding to start the project in Kenya. We really believe the private sector needs to contribute. We’re trying to disseminate our knowledge on wastewater and coffee. We’re also doing workshops in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala.
Top photo courtesy of UTZ Certified