Farmers in Central America turn coffee wastewater into energy supply

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Farmers drying coffee
Farmers drying coffee

Related tags Water

Coffee wastewater can be used to generate energy and protect water resources, while tackling climate change, according to UTZ Certified.

UTZ Certified (a programme and label for sustainable farming of coffee, cocoa and tea) is expanding a project which has been treating discharges from coffee mills.

The organisation says treating wastewater is essential if coffee production is to become sustainable.

From Latin America to Africa and Asia

The Energy from Coffee Wastewater project was launched in 2010. Coffee wastewater treatment systems and solid-waste treatment mechanisms were installed in coffee farms: eight in Nicaragua, 10 in Honduras, and one in Guatemala.  

UTZ Certified is now introducing the technology in Peru and Brazil, and hopes to get further funds to replicate the initiative in Africa and Asia.

Coffee production generates large amounts of wastewater that is often washed, untreated, into rivers and watercourses, affecting flora and fauna.

Han De Groot, executive director, UTZ Certified, told the water also affects the soil and generates greenhouse gases, particularly methane.

The production of coffee generates a lot of waste water, and uses a lot of clean water​,” he said. “We embarked on this project a few years ago: we like to demonstrate answers can be found and now hope to multiply the impact.

The Energy from Coffee Wastewater project has shown that farms can treat essentially all water used in coffee processing, use over 50% less water in the processes, and generate biogas to power households and coffee mills, he added.  

Investment needed

The technology is not very new, but to apply it in the coffee sector is new​,” said De Groot. “So far there are no other examples where the biogas generation has been so successful. It sounds so simple, but to do it in the right way, using the right proportion of waste and water and other ingredients to give a healthy environment, that’s what’s different.​”

The benefits are that less water is polluted because there is a recycling system; it reduces the contamination of rivers; and it reduces – or even puts to zero – the production of greenhouse gases,​” he added.

UTZ Certified says coffee processing and the associated water waste is a ‘major contributor to environmental contamination.’ The organization states a country which processes 91,000 MT of coffee per harvest generates 91,000 m3 ​of waste water, the equivalent of around 36 Olympic pools; and 16,000 MT of organic waste, which adds up to 2,780 MT of methane. This equals the amount of CO2​ produced by 20,000 cars a year.

The project has been used in both small farms (with a production of around 12MT green coffee per harvest) and large processing plants (with production around 1,360-2,300MT). De Groot said the biggest challenge is to get farmers to invest in the project.

You need a substantial upfront investment, and for small farmers that’s hard to come by," ​he said. "Even for medium and bigger companies, the benefits which have been proven in the pilot are not all directly for the farmer.

At this stage we need to directly make traders in the coffee sector aware of the problem, encourage them to invest, and look for donors who want to be part of the projects​.”

Related topics R&D Tea & coffee

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