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Could your small business earn money from its waste?

London: For many years entrepreneur Jeremy Knight has been passionate about three things coffee, business and the environment. In 2009, that passion led him to set up his GreenCup brand, the result of wanting to find a more sustainable way to deal with waste generated by his other business, RedCup, which supplies coffee and coffee machines to offices throughout London.

Knight, a former estate agent and vending machine salesman, explains: “I started RedCup because I wanted to bring the then-emerging high street cafe culture into UK offices, so people could enjoy great-tasting coffee at work whenever they wanted. At the time, vending machine rubbish or instant coffee would’ve been most office workers’ only options,” he recalls.

“But grinding our coffee meant we were generating a sizable amount of coffee grounds ground coffee bean waste. As a business, we had to pay for that waste to be taken away to landfill, which bothered me. Surely there had to be a cheaper, more sustainable alternative?”

Then one day Knight was chatting to the founder of Coffee Kids, a charity that supports Latin American coffee-farming communities. “He told me about one of his donors who was making money from coffee grounds. I carried out some online research and found out that because they are nutrient rich, coffee grounds are ideal for use as compost. Maybe this was the waste solution I’d be looking for?”

Following months of research and development, with Knight enlisting professional help to try different combinations of coffee grounds and other waste items, tests showed that an excellent compost had been created and one that was entirely organic. To market the new product, Knight set up GreenCup as a spin-off from RedCup.

“Our compost is sold via garden centres, but we also sell a range of GreenCup-branded fair trade coffees,” Knight reveals. “Our supply partner is leading Swedish coffee company Lfbergs, one of the world’s largest importers of fair trade organic coffee.”

Knight believes that too many businesses ignore the opportunities potentially offered by waste. “Rather than viewing it negatively, you have to try to be innovative, to find better solutions, ones that are sustainable ones that could even generate additional revenue.”

He says he is busy trying to find other applications for his waste coffee grounds. “We’re working with others to try to find fantastic new uses for coffee grounds. Working with an industrial design company we’ve managed to create a coffee machine with some working parts made from recycled coffee grounds, but we have many other ideas.”

“My business partner and I bought the assets of a long-established joinery business in 2012, brought it into our group and renamed it Premier Architectural Joinery,” recounts Paddy Green, managing director of the Aylesbury-based business. It specialises in high quality timber projects for the construction and refurbishment industry, ranging from doors, gates and windows to staircases and conservatories.

“One of the things that struck me was the sheer volume of waste being sent to landfill,” he adds. “I was also trying to find ways to reduce our heating costs, so I contacted Woodwaste Technology, which makes wood waste heaters. We bought some heaters and since then we’ve been burning our off-cuts to heat our premises. That alone probably saves us thousands of pounds each year.”

Woodwaste Technology made another important recommendation, says Green. “We were creating about five tonnes of sawdust each month. They told us we could be making additional revenue if we bought a machine to turn our sawdust waste into hardwood briquettes for use with open fires, log burners, barbecues or chimineas. Our hardwood briquettes give off a lot of heat, so they’re similar to traditional logs, but without the mess.”

To market the briquettes, Green set up Premier Eco-fuels. “The machine if fully automated. The sawdust goes in one end and the fully bagged-up briquettes come out the other side. We sell them directly to customers in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire.

“We worked out that it would take about three years to earn back the money we’d spent on the briquetting machine, but the investment made sense. Rather than us spending 300 a month to have stuff taken away to landfill, we’re earning up to 800 a month selling the briquettes, so the net monthly gain is about 1,000. The money generated wouldn’t be enough to support a standalone business, but it enables the joinery business to save money, while generating some revenue, with little additional effort required.”

Green’s group of companies employs 26 people, with the joinery business having nine staff. Not all firms would be able to make additional revenue from selling their waste, he concedes. “Much depends on how much waste you’re producing, and whether it has any market value or can be turned into products with marketable value. We’re lucky because our waste is hardwood and we produce quite a bit of it. One of my other ventures is a plastics business, and the cost of reprocessing its waste doesn’t make it viable, sadly, it’s cheaper to buy the virgin material.”

Premier Eco-fuels is affected by seasonal demand. It must sell its briquettes at a slightly cheaper price in the summer because fewer people need to burn them to generate warmth. “We don’t reduce our production, though, because we have space to stockpile the product for when sales volumes increase in the colder months.”

While making briquettes reduces costs and generates modest additional income, that is not Green’s only motivation. He is firmly committed to sustainability. “I think it’s important for businesses to do what they can to be sustainable, and that includes reconsidering their waste. The fact we’re no longer sending large volumes of waste to landfill is a very good thing,” he concludes.