Environment

The Glasgow graduates who can replace palm oil with coffee

When we consider food waste, coffee isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But Fergus Moore and Scott Kennedy noticed a growing problem – and their concern inspired a brand new enterprise

When you think of food waste, you probably picture discarded vegetables, bread, fruit that’s gone off. But do you think of coffee? The guys behind Revive Eco did. Fergus Moore and Scott Kennedy are taking on the 500,000 tonnes of spent coffee grounds that go to UK landfills each year and are turning it into fertiliser and an alternative to wildlife-threatening palm oil. 

The pair met studying at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. “I always liked the idea of being able to create something that would allow me to have an impact wider than just myself,” says co-founder Moore, 26. 

Moore worked in a Marks & Spencer cafe during his studies and saw first-hand the amount of food that was going to waste at the end of every shift. People would often come in and ask for little bags of used coffee grounds to put into their garden or compost heap and Moore later learned this was because coffee is said to up the acidity of soil, a plus for growing some plants. 

It was a lightbulb moment. Moore and Kennedy, also 26, put their heads together to develop a plan for tackling the massive amount of coffee wasted every day across the country. They founded Revive the same week they graduated in 2015.

“The original idea was to just industrialise the process of people coming in and asking for coffee grounds,” Moore explains. “But compost and fertiliser are really low-margin products and the business wasn’t viable. Plus we’re both interested in the idea of spareability; using all the bits  of a thing.”

Moore and Kennedy started with research. Both worked full-time on the startup alongside part-time jobs to support themselves (they finally raised enough investment to move out of their parents’ houses a year ago). They also turned to their alma mater, working with the University of Strathclyde to get a profile of all the different fatty acids in coffee grounds. 

“We discovered straight away that there was something of value in there,” says Moore. “Making a cup of coffee is probably the lowest value thing you can do with it.”

But the most exciting part of the discovery was its potential as a local, sustainable replacement for palm oil. Half of the products we buy in supermarkets are thought to have palm oil in them, from shampoo to biscuits to cosmetics, and its production is estimated to have resulted in eight per cent of global deforestation between 1990 and 2008.

The Revive team dubs its business as “waste rejuvenation”. The other arm of the business is the development of technology to extract oils from it to be used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, household products or back into the food and drinks industry – sustainably. 

For now they’re collecting around a tonne a week from big institutions around Scotland – the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Glasgow Science Centre and exhibition centre, the University of Edinburgh, Ibis hotels – which is mostly going to composting, animal bedding and soil conditioners. But the potential is vast: They also have their eyes on teaming up with other companies to create sustainable packaging.

“We’re expecting to continue working with researchers and have the first demonstration unit up and running in Glasgow in October,” says Moore. “If all goes to plan, we’ll be moving into a fully-fledged commercial unit next year.

Moore and Kennedy secured a grant from Zero Waste Scotland at the start of the year, but like most startups money is the greatest challenge they face. “Plus, we aren’t chemists or engineers so trying to convince people that we are the right people to move this forward is a lot more difficult than if we could put a degree in front of them. But our relative naivety helped when we had to take a leap of faith.”

Revive does no outbound marketing, but still has two or three new organisations getting in touch a week to request their coffee waste-collecting service. Moore agrees it’s not something a lot of people think of in terms of food waste.

“You probably use probably instant coffee at home so you don’t see any waste, or it’ll be a pod so you think of the pod as being the waste. If you go to a cafe all you see is that tiny puck of coffee. You don’t think that behind you is another 2,000 customers about to get that as well.”

Starting a business in a new field, says Moore, flipped his perception of a ‘steep learning curve’ on its head. “We’d never done financial projections before, any kind of accounting or tax, didn’t know anything about anything really. You just have to go and learn it or ask for help. It’s always OK to ask for help.”

Illustration: Matthew Brazier

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