Reground: Turning Waste Into A Resource
Kaitlin Reid in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos by Timothy Hillier
Reground turn coffee waste into a valuable and sustainable resource. We sat down with Reground’s co-director, Kaitlin Reid, who is so passionate about creating the circular economy that if it were up to her, there’d be compost bins on every street corner. As we eagerly emptied our coffee cups the conversation quickly moved from sustainable waste management to initiating large-scale behavioural change.
Mathew Bate: So, Reground. How did it all begin?
Kaitlin Reid: My business partner Ninna, whose from Denmark, started the whole thing. Because Denmark is such a sustainably focused country, where Nina's parents have nine bins to separate their waste, to her being environmentally conscious is just what you do. When she came over here she encountered the Australian mindset, which is pretty much "out of sight, out of mind". She saw that there was a resource being thrown out and she was a part of it. She was a barista at Padre, in Brunswick East, and that's where she started experimenting with recycling coffee waste.
Meanwhile you had been traveling to Colombia?
Yeah, so I travelled for a year in Southern America. At that time I'd never been into coffee, I still can't make a coffee to save my life [laughs]. I worked on a permaculture farm in a coffee region in Colombia. There was a lot of self exploration and I came back home knowing that sustainability was what I wanted to do. I went to work for YUME which is an app that connects farmers that have surplus food that supermarkets won't take to restaurants that'll buy it. I also worked for Deliveroo for a year which enabled me to really learn about logistics and how scalable startups work. But I just kept hitting a wall where my purpose and values were not in alignment with my job.
It was around that time that I met Nina and every time that we caught up it was like a fire of passion and values. I really understood what she had started at Padre and how big it could be. I officially joined in September 2016. We won the Startup Victoria pitch night about the day after I quit Deliveroo [laughs]; it's been a whirlwind from there.
You were already recycling coffee from a handful of cafes when you won that pitch night?
We had, I think, five or six customers. Ninna was doing it all in her car. We had bins collecting coffee waste at Padre, Seven Seeds and Loafer and we'd take them to the CERES community garden. Eventually we crowdfunded for our own van which was definitely, I think, the hardest month in both of our lives. We put everything on the line.
I can imagine that it would be stressful. Crowdfunding is such a tangible symbol of community support. So, tell me how the whole thing works.
A cafe will get in touch and we'll come out and have a chat. It's pretty much all about how much coffee you go through and the whole process is as simple as possible. It's a subscription based model, kind of like a a gym membership, where we'll visit you regularly based on how much coffee you go through. So you might have a bin collected every month or you might have a bin collected three times a week. We give you a bin, you fill it up with your coffee waste and then we swap it out. It's really that simple, there's no need for plastic bags or anything like that, you literally pour your knock box straight to the bin. We clean the bins off-site and so you don't even have to put it out. We call ourselves a ‘9-5 business’ too. Our drivers come in and swap out the bins during business hours as opposed to waste removal companies that empty the bins either at night or early in the morning when no ones around.
So you've got where the coffee comes from, cafes, and then you've got where the coffee goes. How much coffee waste do you go through per week and do you mainly give the coffee waste to community gardens?
Yeah so the suppliers of the coffee are cafes, grocery stores and offices. Our van fits 15, 120L bins and we're on the road Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We're moving about 5 tonnes of coffee per week at the moment. Firstly, our ethos is to turn waste into a resource and we really want mindset and behavior to follow that change. We've identified that it's really important for individuals and community garden volunteers to be the recipients of this beautiful resource. We've gone from people not knowing that coffee is good for the garden and having to work really hard on educating them, to having a waiting list of people that want our coffee. Currently, we've got around 75 cafes on board. It's been a journey that I think could only happen in the way that it has because we're not just selling a product or selling a service, we're providing a platform for behavioural change.
Are there really enthusiastic people that get it delivered to their backyard as well?
We do deliver coffee to some people that have huge gardens or are retired. They're all so passionate about sustainability and growing their own food. We've also got people like Stewart. Stewart lives in Eltham and he’s just bought a huge cement mixer to mix our coffee with other elements so he can make his own compost! That kind of resourcefulness is something that I think we're all sort of missing these days. Very few people see the need to be resourceful.
Because it involves a certain amount of knowledge, care and passion for sustainability are you finding that your growing in certain areas and not others? As you mentioned, it all began in Brunswick. I'm just wondering if it's been harder to expand into different suburbs and communities.
I think there's a few elements to behavioural change and the first is definitely education and awareness, which, yes, is sometimes higher in certain areas than in others. Most people are not aware, for example, that when coffee goes to landfill it doesn't just breakdown into the soil. It turns into toxic gas in our atmosphere that's 20 to 40 times more potent than carbon pollution from cars. So it's really really bad for the atmosphere. It's not even like plastics where it never breaks down, it does, it's just that it produces methane from the anaerobic digestion that takes place. However, when it gets oxygen, which is what happens in composting, it doesn't break down that way and no methane is emitted. On the other hand it's a really amazing resource; it's high in potassium and it's high in nitrogen. Also, because it doesn't break down any further it starts working in your compost straight away. Worms love it and I mean every gardener loves worms because their castings are like gold to them. So, the first thing is educating people about all of those elements.
The second thing, that you sort of touched on, is the social norms and social pressure that we all respond to. Once you've got those two elements then behavioural change can occur. I think that's why we've grown so naturally in the North. Starting as a grassroots business we were able to talk to people that wanted to educate themselves and then the word spread and we were able to build a critical mass, which is super important to scale up. People are now starting to support businesses that they think are doing the right thing.
'Firstly, our ethos is to turn waste into a resource and we really want mindset and behaviour to follow that change.'
So we have a Reground certification which is just about to go on the window here because these guys are new. It shows people that this cafe is taking responsibility for their coffee waste and are recycling it sustainably. We're finding that now, people are starting to ask their barista what they're doing with their coffee or their food waste. The more people start asking questions and demanding action, the more cafes will come on board and the more we can, therefore, spread the message.
What are some of the barriers to entry? If I'm a cafe that churns through coffee, what's stopping me recycling it with Reground?
Historically there haven't been really any options in the space we're working in. I mean there has there's always the option of taking your organic waste to a garden somewhere but there haven't been any viable options for a cafe or a business to dispose of their waste sustainably and at scale. What ends up happening is most cafes and restaurants throw their organic waste into landfill because it's easy; it's that "out of sight, out of mind" mindset I was talking about. The first barrier is the element of care or awareness; cafes need to see that waste is a problem. They need to be willing to get in touch or be open to talk about the issue. Some cafes also just want to look good. That's tricky because we're very against greenwashing but if someone gets in touch we take that as an opportunity to educate and to affect behavior and the overall mindset about waste.
I suppose if waste is being removed without you having to do anything except put it out on the street, and you're not aware of any problems with waste, then it would be unlikely that you would think to do anything different.
Yes, whereas we come in when the cafe's open. Usually we'll grab a coffee and we develop relationships with the cafes because that's a form of transparency that cafes can trust. Another barrier, clearly, is that cafes need to pay us to remove their coffee. Most of the time cafes just assume that it's a free service.
Because they look at it as waste that's not a resource and definitely not their responsibility?
Exactly. People might think that we're removing waste because it's a nice thing to do, so sometimes people just think it's a donation service. Initially we would get emails from people that were happy to donate their coffee if we were willing to pick it up. But the mindset is slowly starting to change and we're getting people asking us how much our service is. That's the behavioural change I keep emphasising. When it gets to that point, the waste producer is taking responsibility of their own waste that they've produced. We completely understand that the bottom line is very important but we're trying to advocate for triple bottom line. It is about people and the planet and profit.
I sat on a panel at Melbourne Knowledge Week 2018 with Nathan Tolman from the the Mulberry Group. (which includes Top Paddock, Higher Ground and Square One Coffee Roasters). He was talking about how sustainable waste practises are an investment. At Top Paddock they've got 20 worm farms that recycle most of their organic waste. That's not achievable for smaller businesses but this idea that you can invest in waste is really important because that's exactly what it is. Poor waste management contributes to climate change and now the coffee bean is threatened. I went to a talk the other night about protecting the future of coffee because the countries that grow most of the world's coffee beans are usually in places that are worst affected by climate change. If you're, therefore, in the business of selling coffee you should want to play your part in protecting coffee beans. Having said that, there are still a lot of businesses that will cut costs at every stage in their business. Those people are not the people that are going to be using Reground at this point in time. There will come a time where people will see the absolute need for it. Or we will have worked really hard and got it legislated!
This is super important because Reground sits within the broader discussion of sustainability. You're not necessarily only trying to recycle coffee, you've just started there. So, what's the next step for you guys?
We often say that we'd like to work ourselves out of a job. For us it's about it not being an option for cafes, restaurant owners and individuals to throw their organic waste into landfill. Ideally i'd like to see compost bins throughout the city. If I'm eating an apple and there's a compost bin I can put it in, that's the ideal scenario. Once enough people are on board and people are demanding our service then we can can approach the council to make large-scale change.
It's like you're trying to create a social, grassroots waste movement.
Honestly, we're trying to start a revolution. It really is about the bigger picture for us. We've started with coffee because it's a separate waste stream and it's easy to adopt. We're also in the coffee capital of Australia where there's also a big emphasis on quality. But until now the end has just dropped off. This focus on quality now continues all the way through and includes how you dispose or re-use it. We're not just here to move five tonnes of coffee a week. We're part of the changing face of waste. We drive around in a van, not a waste removal truck, for example. We've even just started trialling soft plastic recycling as well. That really shows that it's not just about coffee. And this happened before China stopped taking our plastic. We just saw an opportunity that small to medium businesses have a lot of soft plastics but their too small to get a waste removal truck to recycle it properly. Some small businesses will collect it and take it to Coles, who recycle it, themselves. Because we've usually got a van with space we'll take directly to Replas, who do all of the soft plastics recycling for Coles, for them. At the moment we're working with Replas to recycle the soft plastics that we collect.
Imagine if you made your bins out of the soft plastics that you recycled!
We have actually spoken about that! But, with the way that the technology is at this point with Replas, there is a limit as to the moulds that they can make. We are going to commission them to make some planter boxes for our community gardens though. We've also thought about 100% recycled knock boxes. There's always so many opportunities to close the loop. It a constant conversation. What does it take to make change happen? Is the onus on the consumer to demand change or businesses or government? Of course it's all three and that's why we work on all of these levels at Reground.
Right. This is why your model is so good. It operates on all three of those levels of change. You're educating the customer, you're engaging with business and your advocating for change in local council.
Yeah exactly and they all have a really important role to play in turning the linear economy into a circular economy. We all need to see our own important role in creating that shift. Sometimes it's hard to empower yourself if you look at it from the individual's point of view and I get that. When you recycle though there’s a residual effect. If you live with other people in a sharehouse and you get a worm farm, slowly everyone will start thinking about what they can/can't feed the worms and they'll start to think about what they're throwing out. That's where you get the ripple effect of your actions affecting other people's habits.
Mathew Bate is the digital editor of Matters Journal. He's a published poet from Melbourne that likes to walk.
‘We often say that we'd like to work ourselves out of a job. For us it's about it not being an option for cafes, restaurant owners and individuals to throw their organic waste into landfill.’