'It's an urban farm, an urban greenhouse just standing there abandoned for the past 2 or 3 years. Let’s get into action.’
On street corners, in tower blocks, and atop kitchen counters, temporary Eden for the weary-eyed is created in coffee cups. For many, brewing is a daily ritual. Preferred numbers are stamped daily into vending machines and precise, predetermined ratios of shot to water are discussed heatedly by baristas. But the pomp and ceremony hides a wasteful reality. The average cup of coffee contains around 0.2% of the coffee bean; 99.8% becomes coffee grounds.
Beneath an abandoned waterpark in Rotterdam, a unique business is growing from the grounds up.
In 2013, Siemen Cox had finished work for the day in the financial services and was driving home via the boulevard, harbour and city skyline flitting past his windows. He’d recently read The Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli and was contemplating one of the business cases inside: growing mushrooms on coffee waste. As he passed Tropicana, a vast waterpark that was deserted in 2010, he struck on an idea. ‘I thought something like: we need to do some urban farming there. It’s an urban farm, an urban greenhouse just standing there abandoned for the past 2 or 3 years. Let’s get into action.’
If locals, whose adolescent weekends had played out on the Tropicana flumes, happened to peer through the transparent dome in the weeks after Siemen and co-founder Mark Slevers secured a lease, they would likely not have noticed a change. Yet, life was stirring deep in its bowels. The damp rooms were steadily beginning to resemble unconventional walk-in wardrobes. On coat hangers, bags of coffee grounds and mushroom spawn were poised to sprout oyster mushrooms.
‘A lot of people think that we are maybe in the big dome, outside, upstairs. But, actually we are in the basement, not with a beach umbrella and a cocktail!’ said Siemen. ‘It’s the old beauty saloon area, so the area where there used to be a spa, beauty treatments and massages. There are tiles everywhere on the floor and also drains everywhere, so it’s easy for us to clean. And because of the concrete it has a very stable temperature.’
Rotterdam itself proved to be a fruitful home for the project. ‘Every high tower in the city of Rotterdam produces 5-8 hundred kilos of coffee waste every month, so we just knock on their door and ask for the coffee! It’s in such abundance. We made a calculation that there’s an estimated 6 million kilos of coffee waste being thrown away each year in the city of Rotterdam alone.’
‘The mushrooms we only sell to Rotterdam. We don’t want to transport them to Amsterdam. It’s not because we hate Amsterdam, but it’s because there’s enough coffee waste in Amsterdam. So, let an entrepreneur in Amsterdam start his own mushroom farm, create jobs and produce local food’.
Should one take up Siemen’s challenge, they won’t be starting from scratch. The team in Rotterdam (now seven-strong) share their knowledge open source: ‘Every month we host an internship or mushroom master programme where we train other entrepreneurs to start a farm like this in their own community’. After being flooded with offers from residents keen to offer their personal coffee waste, they also developed at-home grow kits, and are now working on developing mobile mushrooms units (the design of which would be made publically available).
‘We think that cooperation replaces competition. That’s just like nature; it’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties.’
At it’s simplest it’s a solution to the wasteful aftermath of modern caffeine cravings. But it’s a lesson too about how businesses can thrive in a competition-driven landscape, without leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.