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How to recycle all your used coffee grounds

Grounds and chaff from coffee can be composted.
Grounds and chaff from coffee can be composted. TAKAAKI IWABU - tiwabu@newsobser

Counter Culture Coffee roasts and brews a lot of coffee. The Durham-based fair trade coffee company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in April, has training centers in nine cities and roasting facilities on both coasts and sells to individuals, retailers and restaurants. That’s a lot of coffee.

“We have coffee grounds kind of out the wazoo here,” said sustainability coordinator Meredith Taylor, who works at Counter Culture’s Durham headquarters.

Yet it wouldn’t fit the business philosophy to simply throw them away – after all, sustainability and responsibility are core Counter Culture principles. So the company spent the first 15 years or so passively composting grounds behind the main production facility. Now a commercial composter picks up the waste, both at headquarters and at each training center. The company may have expanded nationwide, but it’s worked the whole time to minimize its footprint: Even some of Counter Culture’s coffee bags are biodegradable.

“Our bag that is compostable right now is our 12-ounce bag,” Taylor said. These are the Counter Culture bags that grocery stores stock. For larger clients – say, coffee shops – the technology doesn’t exist yet to make bigger bags that are both compostable and strong enough to hold several pounds of beans. Yet Taylor knows how to reuse these bags, too.

“What we used to do at the café that I worked at is we would collect our used coffee grounds and we would put them back in the big bags and we would set them outside of our coffee shop,” Taylor said. This was in Washington, D.C., and people would come by and take the bags year-round, to compost or simply to put in their garden soil.

“As far as things that people can reuse, I think coffee grounds take not a lot of input to make them valuable to reuse,” Taylor said.

Taylor offered these suggestions for what people can do with their household coffee grounds rather than simply throw them out.

Compost: “The things that sort of burn off the coffee bean, for lack of a better word, are really high in phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and copper – some of the things that you would want to add to your soil to have healthy, good soil anyway,” Taylor said. “People that are doing commercial level composting, they love getting coffee grounds from us because they are such a high nutrient add to their compost.” If you compost at home, simply add your grounds to your compost pile. Though the grounds are brown in color, Taylor said to think of them as green compost.

Soil additive: “The coffee grounds themselves, you can just apply them right on top of your plants,” Taylor said. They don’t need composting to be a good additive, and lettuce, roses and many perennials respond well to the nutrients they contribute to the soil.

Pest repellant: Caffeine is a natural insecticide because it tastes bitter, which is one reason plants grow it, Taylor said. “You can use coffee grounds to create slug and insect barriers in your garden,” she said. “I used to live in Washington, D.C., and I had a problem with birds and rats in my garden, so I used to just straight-up brew my coffee in the morning and then toss my coffee grounds into my garden as a pest repellant.”

Put grounds anywhere but the trash: If you drink coffee but don’t compost or garden, Taylor’s solution is simple: Just toss the grounds in your yard. “They’re not going to hurt anything,” she said. “They’re not going to rot, they’re not going to attract animals or anything like that.” Plus, they’d have the same positive qualities in a lawn as they’d have in a garden.

Readers: We want to hear how you have repurposed old items. For your project to be considered for Second Time’s the Charm, send a photo, a description and contact information to corbiehill@gmail.com.

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