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Composting: At Home and in the Cafe


Give your coffee a second life by composting—Rory Van Grol of Ugly Duck Coffee will show you how.

When you brew coffee in the morning, what do you do with the old grounds? Instead of throwing them away, give them a new life by using them for compost.

“We have one planet Earth and the more we can do to divert our impact the better we all are,” says Rory Van Grol of Ugly Duck Coffee in Rochester, New York. At Ugly Duck, Rory and his team have implemented a robust composting program, not only composting their old coffee grounds but many of the paper goods often used in the cafe.

Composting means taking organic substances—think food scraps or things made out of plants—and using them into a soil mixture that helps the materials decompose naturally instead of being thrown into a landfill. Compost is often used as fertilizer, but even if you’re not growing or maintaining a garden, composting is an eco-friendly way to reduce and repurpose waste.


Many coffee shops across the nation have composting programs, often because coffee grounds are incredibly good composting material. “Our first step was just composting our used coffee grounds and donating it to local friends who were using it for home gardens,” Van Grol says, noting that simply diverting coffee grounds into a bucket to give to growers is an easy and excellent first step.

Although many visit their local coffee shops to pick up compost, you might be able to drop off your compost at a community drop point. If you’re unsure how to get started, talk to your barista and see if they’re connected with a local composting group or would be willing to help take some of your grounds. Some coffee shops may even implement similar systems in their cafe and likely have more information on places where you can drop off compost.

Van Grol started with just composting grounds, and soon realized how much more his cafe could do. “I discovered a local commercial composting company called Impact Earth. Since we're already composting food waste I reached out to them about what other items we would be able to compost,” he says, noting that once he started he began seeing more opportunities to cut down on waste. “It was really easy to set up and they had a list of items that are commercially compostable for us to use. They give us an easy to read list of items that can be composted and if there are any specifics or outliers they are super easy to connect with and able to answer any questions.”

If you’re unsure, you can start with simply a bucket. “Start by creating one five-gallon bucket for compost for coffee ground only and see how that goes,” he says. If you’re not sure what to do with the grounds, Van Grol says that many local composting organizations will coordinate pick-ups. “We have partnered with a local composting company and we rent a 32-gallon ‘garbage’ tote from them. They come every Monday and take our used tote and drop off a new one.” If you don’t have a service like this locally, local farmers and gardeners might be able to use your compost in their plants. “Connect with local farmers and see if they'd be willing to set up a compost trade,” Van Grol says. “This also helps you make a deeper connection with the local farmer community. No more throwing away a gross heavy bag of leaky garbage away.”


Composting reduces your environmental footprint, and although it’s one important step, what starts as one small change can lead to others. As Van Grol mentioned before, once he started composting, he began seeing more opportunities to expand. By making composting a part of the fabric at Ugly Duck, he was not only able to make a bigger direct impact, but he was able to start bringing that energy to customers. “Once you change one piece and get comfortable you'll be surprised how excited your team will get and how small changes are easy. We started small and gradually built our system to what it is.”

Whatever Ugly Duck can compost, they do, and their commitment to sustainability is communicated on the materials they use. “Our cups and lids have compostable markings on them, so we're happy to share any and all of that info easily,” he says. “It's also really great to be able to tell folks that pretty much everything can be tossed into that compost tote outside our door. People have been super receptive and our team is really psyched and proud that we compost.”

Clearly, composting is good for the environment, but it’s also a good way to build community and connect with farmers, activists, and businesses who share a dedication to reducing waste. There’s likely a coffee shop or a community organization in your neighborhood that composts. “The beauty is that you probably aren't alone in wanting to do this,” says Van Grol, “and someone is already actively doing it.”



Ashley Rodriguez is a writer and host of the podcast Boss Barista. She writes about workplace equity and employee empowerment in her weekly newsletter.



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