How the University of Birmingham is supporting this Birmingham based business feed the circular economy one cup of coffee at a time.

Coffee is considered a morning ritual to many and the topic of a number of ethical debates. However, once the coffee has reached your cup and the caffeine is fuelling your brain and morning motivation, how much thought do you put into the brown coffee grounds that remains? The UK alone consumes approximately 98 million cups a day which creates over 1000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds each and every day. The majority of this waste ends up in landfills where they release methane, one of the primary causes of global warming. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Entrepreneur, designer and Ethilution Ltd founder Rhys Ellis, saw a life for waste coffee grounds beyond the caffeine. Rhys is a full advocate for the circular economy business model and has designed a number of sustainable and circular fashion accessories from waste materials, most recently coffee pods. Ethilution is a multidiscipline start up that puts the planet first with the ethos of rescue, revaluate, redesign and repeat in everything they do. Every product created produces no waste and is designed to have no end life, becoming completely circular.

Rhys Ellis said: “It’s rescuing the waste, showing the waste available, and what that product could be and then leaving the power in the customers hands to customize it and kind of build their own products from that.”

Ethilutions dedication to the circular economy goes beyond the products as they work to encourage their customers, supply chain and even other businesses to think the same. A refreshing and innovative business that sets out to do more and do it well.

Ethilution have been trading for less than a year and have already utilised pre-used cardboard packaging, plastic bottles, automotive leather waste, recycled cotton alongside the waste coffee grounds. To support them in their inspiring mission Rhys has built relationships with a number of influential organisations including First Mile, Bio Bean and the Research Support Service at the University of Birmingham.

Rhys approached ARLI (Alternative Raw Materials with Low Impact), one of the many ERDF business support programmes provided by  Research Support Services and the University of Birmingham, to collaboratively turn the spent coffee grounds into an honest, home compostable packaging alternative that the world desperately needs.

When starting Ethilution, Rhys was faced with the level of green-washing (a behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is) in the industry. Transparency also became a huge part of Ethilutions ethos as a result.

“ the main kind of thing that sparked my interest was the mushroom packaging, which is very much kind of everyone’s coming aware of now, and that they grow that to order…We did test products ourselves looking for a product that’s true to its word and there’s not really any out there, apart from that mushroom packaging there’s no other options. So that was really where it’s come from – “is there a way that we can turn this waste material into packaging?” which ticks all the boxes and can stay true to his word.”

Mushroom packaging is a trademarked sustainable packaging solution that grows to order and fully composts in 45 days. It has been certified as 100% biobased and certified Cradle to Cradle Gold.

Ethilution was paired up with ARLI Technical Officer, Dr Piyamon Poapongsakorn, a research and development engineer with a background in mechanical engineering. Dr Poapongsakorn has an extensive experience in developing and leading a wide range of industrial research projects with clear commercial application. She is specialised in material testing and characterisation, analysis of structural safety and integrity, structural failure, mechanical design, and applying computational techniques in mechanical design and analysis.

Dr Poapongsakorn analysed the chemical components of the coffee grounds to identify suitable additives to support the structure and durability of the potential packaging whilst remaining lightweight, home-compostable and vegan friendly. Through active research a number of suitable binding materials were identified and detailed in a comprehensive report provided at the end of the project. The materials were made up of a mixture of commonly used biodegradable resins and polymers as well as common household ingredients. The report provided Ethilution with all the information on the formulas, processes and outcomes of each composite allowing all future independent research done by the company to be informed with this identified foundation.

When asked if Ethilution could have progressed this quickly without ARLI support? Rhys explained “without that support and the expertise it wouldn’t be possible. And having that kind of time to talk and actually manage it, it wouldn’t be an option for us.”

Although not yet available on the market, Ethiluton’s spent coffee grounds packaging could have a massive impact by displacing waste packaging. Once in production this, one of a kind innovative packaging solution, will not only provide a waste material with a new life but create a new income stream for the business as well as create new jobs.

As a funded business support programme set up to limit the use of raw materials and lighten the current stain on resources, ARLI is able to offer eligible businesses like Ethilution access to state-of-the-art research facilities and team of expert academics. ARLI was originally funded to run to support 100 Greater Birmingham and Solihull businesses over a 3-year period. Due to the success of the project ARLI was funded for a further 3 years (which will end June 2023) to support an additional 200 businesses across a wider area. ARLI is now also able to support businesses reach their sustainable potential in this area as well as now Coventry & Warwickshire, Black Country and The Marches (in partnership with CREST).