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Upcycling or Downcycling? A Planter Made From Used Coffee Grounds

For the past year, New York City-based product designer Matthew Waldman has been saving all of his used coffee grounds (like most designers, he drinks a lot of coffee, so it was no small amount to keep out of the trash). Waldman wanted to find a creative use for the grounds, and ended up combining them with resin to make a new material that he has formed into a line of plant pots now on Kickstarter.

Every pot's unique—a dark roast turns into a darker pot, and other grades of coffee end up medium or light brown. Waldman plans to mix them with a biodegradeable, corn-based resin so they can be composted, at least in theory. It's unclear if something like this would be compostable in a home composter, and most people don't have access to city composting programs yet. It also seems like the material wouldn't be recyclable, unlike other plastics, since it's made from a mixed material.

What's the ultimate second life for something like coffee grounds? They're good for composting as they are, whether that's in a backyard composter or in an industrial composter for a city. If the grounds are going to be collected anyway to manufacture something like these pots, would it be better just to compost the coffee instead?

There's actually a third possibility. Waldman isn't the first to experiment with coffee grounds; Starbucks is researching some other possibilities that might ultimately be more useful. Instead of mixing coffee grounds with plastic to make a new material, Starbucks has been working with researchers to test making plastic directly from the grounds themselves. No oil, no corn, just coffee-based plastic.

The plastic is made in a somewhat similar way as the version made from corn, but it avoids the big downsides of corn: it's not using land or food that could otherwise be used more productively, and it doesn't require the huge amounts of energy that it does to grow corn (some studies have said that corn-based plastic actually uses more oil to create than oil-based plastic itself). Starbucks is testing similar methods with unsold baked goods, in an effort to reduce other food waste.

For now, food-based plastic is still in the research stages. Composting isn't always easily accessible. In the end, it's good to explore lots of options for recycling waste, as long as designers can plan ahead for a closed-loop system—not just recycling once, but figuring out how the new product can be recycled, too.

Images via Matthew Waldman.

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