Upcycling Waste Coffee Grounds into Organic Skincare Products; with Dean Sprague

Cassi Lowe
Mar 18 · 12 min read
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What happens to your coffee grounds after you make or buy your daily cup of coffee? More often than not, they end up in a landfill and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Dean Sprague is working to reduce the amount of coffee grounds in landfill by upcycling them into luxury organic skincare products. He combines the ground coffee with other ethically sourced materials to create a full range of products.

In the interview below Dean shares his journey from chef to social entrepreneur, and his advice for other social entrepreneurs who may feel overwhelmed by the issues we’re facing.

Tell me about your company and the work that you do.

I rescue used ground coffee from cafés and treat it and turn it into beautiful organic luxury skincare.

How did you come up with the idea to start doing that?

Well, it’s kind of funny. I offered to give someone a hand. This person is a local business owner here. She has a Himalayan pink salt importation and distribution throughout Thailand. But she wanted some help, so I offered to help. And while I was helping out, I learnt a few things. And what I found was a way of ‘unfolding’ my own skills, experiences and passion for food system justice, the wisdom I gained by saying ‘yes’ to the opportunity was in exposure to a new industry I had zero experience in, the spa and beauty industry. It was an unfolding of skills that made a lot of sense.

If I could give you some background, I’m a 30 year chef. I was a chef in Melbourne, in the UK, and I have worked in the US. I’ve had a great career, it’s taken me, a kid from the suburbs, all around the world. In the last 15 years, I went back to university because I was curious about how food operates from a technical level.

I started lecturing and training people with ‘job-ready’ skills for the hospitality industry, started working with local employers for placement of the students which led me into business development. Being a BD eventually led me into what really made me happy — community development — working with long-term unemployed people, people who have English as a second language, recent asylum seekers, people who had dependency issues and mental health issues. I was setting up community enterprises and community projects, but I always kept on coming back to food-using food as a way of breaking down barriers. So anywhere there’s food shortages, or people going without food, or there’s too much food (waste food), I was in there putting on the cape, flying off into battle and addressing food system issues.

I’m a coffee lover. All you have to do is talk about coffee and all of the sudden I’m off, “Yeah, let’s go get some coffee.” But what I noticed is using the skills as a food technician and being active in food system issues addressing waste; I had a bunch of skills, knowledge and the resources and the network, I saw that coffee is simply being thrown out. The stats say 90% of cafés simply throw their used ground coffee into a landfill. There’s not enough people doing something with it. I see it as a very valuable wasted resource. For example there are people in the UK who are creating biofuels from the used ground coffee, and they’re taking tonnage of waste coffee. You can certainly also use it in agriculture. You can plow it into soil, it enriches soil, and adds carbon to soil. You can use it in horticulture, putting it on your plants. Certain plants you can’t, of course, and skincare.

The benefits of using the used ground coffee is that, not only do you get great exfoliation from the fine ‘crystals’ of the coffee, you also get the benefits of the caffeine. It actually tightens up and firms the skin, it can minimize and treat things like eczema, psoriasis, scarring, dermatitis, and by reducing cellulite, which was a totally unexpected thing to discover. Some people do unfortunately have excessive cellulite and caffeine tightens and firms the skin up. Cellulite is basically fat, sort of pushing out through the webs of the membranes that are holding it all together. So, why throw used ground coffee out when it can be used in agriculture, horticulture, biofuels, skincare? I’ve been communicating with people making recycled cups from the ground coffee, and I’ve even seen sunglasses and sculptures made from it.

There’s a local artist here who takes ground coffee, mixes it with a setting agent and makes beautiful sculptures and statues, really reflective beautiful colors, all uniquely different from each other. We’ve only just begun to find uses for ‘waste’ ground coffee.

Once that used ground coffee gets into the landfill, it begins to break down. It converts into CO2 and methane. Both of those gasses rise into the atmosphere. They deplete the ozone layer, and contribute to the Greenhouse Effect. Stopping it before it gets into the atmosphere is known as sequestering. There’s more and more coffee being drunk literally every day. Upwards of two and a half billion cups every single day around the planet. So collectively there’s a lot of coffee waste.

What I’m observing as well is that as more and more Chinese and Indian people, with their rising ‘middle class,’ extra money to spend and leisure time, they are beginning to do what we do in America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, they are starting to go out to cafés to experience ‘cafe culture.’ As the uptake of this increased coffee consumption becomes evident over the next five to 10 years, the demand for coffee increases, the offset for waste increases, it’s now time to address it. Not many people are actually thinking about this or certainly not addressing it.

At the moment, I’ve got too much coffee waste. Everywhere I go I speak with cafe owners and baristas: “What are you doing with your used ground coffee?” and they’ll normally say, “We don’t do anything with it, just throw it out.” Some customers might come and get it for their garden, but to coordinate individual cafés with bulk amounts of waste coffee and actually use it productively does take a little bit of effort, but it’s nothing that’s beyond us and our capabilities for innovation.

We can’t stop the uptake of coffee, its’ consumption is increasing each year. All we can do is slow the process of it ‘breaking down’ into methane and CO2. I love my coffee, and as more and more people start drinking it, the problem is going to escalate.

How did you decide to use skincare as the vehicle for reusing the coffee grounds?

I offered to help this person with some business development, and I would go with them into a few spas. The idea was to get their Himalayan salt in there so that they could use it as body scrubs, foot scrubs, and I just looked at it and went, “oh, this stuff’s actually quite easy to make.” What I do with the reclaimed ground coffee is blend it with beautiful ingredients. This is where my ‘Chef’ skills come in handy; blending the used ground coffee with other beautiful ingredients. I use cold pressed organic virgin coconut oil, I use some beautiful sweetly aromatics like Indonesian Vanilla, all of the ingredients that are used in the range are sourced from ‘fair trade’ — ethical and sustainable farmers that are working collectively with community standards as their motivators and especially against the ‘big brands’ who have been ‘squeezing’ the life out of their communities for decades. The Himalayan pink salt that’s used in the scrubs as the main exfoliation agent is bought from a collective who are building schools and supporting women into their own businesses in India.

Single Origin Skincare produces a range of soaps, scrubs and beard oils and we’re researching and introducing new products like our new ‘Chocolate Mocha Soap’ which is coming soon.

SOS uses premium, beautiful ingredients, which are all ‘single origin’ sourced. I only work with ethically-driven people who are thinking about sustainability and the environment a whole lot more than the government is.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?

Well, you learn about yourself when you’re developing a start-up, your attitude to things. For someone going out there without a ‘guidebook’, you’re going to encounter your own blockages and your own fears. You often ask yourself ‘how do I move forward or what is this thought-pattern that’s stopping me from doing ‘the next step’?’ I constantly ask myself: “how do I go through, how do I go over, how do I go around a blockage or resistance?” It’s about being able to be resilient and determined, and I’ve learnt that nothing’s going to stop me (even myself!) from trying to save the environment and from doing the things that are necessary to make a positive impact. In fact I’m more determined to want to do it more and more and more. There’s been many times where I’ve said to myself, “what am I doing this for?” And “it’s too hard, nobody cares anyway.” These are the moments where it is easier just to give up, they’re also the moments where we are likely to have the most profound breakthroughs and insights.

Learning about the self, and it’s true on whatever we do, because collectively we’ve got to get our act together and say, “Hey, there’s something wrong here. Let’s go and fix that thing. Let’s try and do something about it.” There’s enough research and scientific evidence, there’s enough people who do care, most importantly, that are willing to come along, be part of whatever you’re doing. By learning about yourself, and addressing our quirks and shortcomings within yourself in order to be able to help others. And you need to give yourself a little bit of a break. As a chef, I would easily work 12, 14, 15, 16 hour days, seven days in a row, 14 days in a row, 21 days in a row. But I’ve decided it’s more about working smarter and more effectively. I’ve had a great career, but now it’s time for me to use those skills and experiences and passions and actually contribute to making a positive impact.

Is there any other advice you would give to other social entrepreneurs?

Yes. Don’t stop doing whatever you are doing! It’s the little things that slow us down. Some days it’s simply being able to open up the laptop to send ‘that’ email some days, just keep on doing it and taking action. And for anyone concerned about the impact of our own consumption often it’s just those little teeny tiny things. It’s like, when you’re holding a plastic bottle you’ve got the choice of throwing it into the trash or actually separating it into the recyclables. Sometimes even ‘just’ that little bit of action will make the difference. And often, what I’m presented with is a global issue that not enough people are becoming involved or aware of, so it can feel insurmountable and it’s the default feelings of helplessness ‘it’s too much, there’s too much going on and what difference can I make?’ But to hell with that attitude; I’m going to do something that makes a difference anyway.

What’s your vision for the future, either for the business or for the world or both?

I would actively encourage more people to follow whatever they’ve seen or observed that isn’t ‘right’ and for them to say, “Hey, I’m going to do something about that.” We need more social enterprise. We need more businesses with a social conscience. We need more businesses with an environmental impact awareness. I’m going to be a part of growing this ecosystem of sustainability warriors. I’m going to help people who are a little bit younger, a little bit more energetic than myself, to help them to survive and thrive. Even if it’s by just ‘propping’ them up a little bit or by supporting them and encouraging them. Together, we grow.

Besides, I want a world where everything we buy, we give it a little bit of consideration. By saying, “Hey, you know what, this cup of coffee that I love in the morning, it was originally a seed, it was a plant, it was a tree. There was someone tending it, making sure it was watered and then picking it and harvesting it and sorting it and distributing it and roasting it and then extracting it and ta-da here’s my cup of coffee in the morning, I’m giving a moments reflection and thought to everything that’s been contributed to this process.” These thoughts help us to realize the impact each one of us makes either positive or negative.

I see that whole coffee growing through to cup process as magic, it gives me a very real connection to Mother Earth. When I’m in the coffee growing regions of Northern Thailand I feel such a connection to the whole loop of seed to plant to fruit to bean to cup.

I at least take a moment to go, hey, respect to the person that grew it, the person that picked it, the person who sorted it. There is so much disrespect for what is all natural, what is good. Coffee exists only on our planet, so let’s look after both coffee and planet; that kind of thinking is applicable to celery seeds or tomatoes and so on, everything we do has an impact.

Part of the vision of what I’m doing business-wise is that I spend a lot of time in a place called Mae Sai on the Thai-Myanmar border, which is roughly about five hours north of Chiang Mai where I live, they grow a lot of coffee there. I’m helping the farmers introduce more organic farming principles there, so that they’re not as reliant on using chemicals, which is a good thing.

While I’m in that region, I’m noticing that there’s all these kids running around the remote villages. These kids, they’re not going to school. It’s too difficult to actually take them down the mountain each day and back again for school, so they’re not getting access to any sort of education.

I’ll sit and read with them, help them with their English skills, because unfortunately, there’s going to be some unscrupulous person come along one day and go, “Oh, we’ll sign a 10 year deal with you and we’ll pay you a dollar per kilo for 10 years.” And without English skills and without knowledge, they’ll say, “Hey, that sounds all right,” but they’re getting stiffed along the way.

So, I’m helping the growers and their communities with fair-trade, sustainability and ethics principles.

If I could just add quickly, here in Thailand, during the 1950s the late King of Thailand actually started this ‘Royal Project.’ The Royal Project was introduced to minimize the opium growers and trade up on the Myanmar border. He wanted to eradicate the issues associated with opium, and he knew he had to replace it with other crops. So what he did is, he reached out to the world. This is in the 1950s, the guy’s thinking organic, sustainability, respect for his own culture, and he encourages people to take pride in the cultural artwork, dance and music and stories. He also realized that you have to replace the income that was being phased out by from opium. One of the crops he introduced was coffee. He reached out to the world. There were countries all over, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Columbia, Guatemala, etc. that sent coffee to be grown here. There’s roughly about 80 varieties of coffee grown in Thailand. Not a lot of people know this, and there’s varieties that are grown here that are not growing anywhere else now. The trouble is because there’s very little communication between growers, that if there was a wildfire, you’d lose a variety of coffee. So I’m all about bringing these guys together, so at least we’re talking, saving some seeds, thinking about the future a little bit more.

What action do you want readers to take?

The basic principles apply to everything we do. Those principles are of respect for that thing that you’ve got in front of you. It actually helps us in a health-sense as well. It creates a spiritual alignment with what we’re consuming. And it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about brand new clothes or earrings or perfume or food that we all consume. It’s saying, “You know what, there’s people attached to this thing.” It’s about being mindful at the moment of consumption. For example 70% of food produced goes into the trash. So it’s saying, “Hey, what can I do with that?” I know it’s a little bit jumbled, but for people to be mindful that there is a whole process, there’s people attached to everything that we consume. Be a little bit more mindful about what we do consume, and certainly about how much we consume.

If you can, if you’re in a situation where you do need something or you want something, try and go to ethical companies who have sustainability principles.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

If any readers know of any cafés or barber shops that would want to know more, I’m seeking those sort of partnerships with people who are aware. The more I can offload products, sequester those products, the better off the actual enterprise is going to be. It is a for profit, the profits are used to get books to kids in the mountain regions, to help them with edible gardens, to help them with more sustainable farming methods. I’m willing to do it, I love doing it and willing to keep on doing it and not going to stop anytime soon. If I could get a few sales through some channels, that would be awesome.

Find Dean Online

Single Origin Skincare: https://singleoriginskincare.com

FB/Instagram: @singleoriginskincare

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dean-sprague-36447343

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Good Press

Shining a spotlight on businesses that make an impact.

Cassi Lowe

Written by

I help social entrepreneurs grow their online presence through web design and inbound marketing.

Good Press

Shining a spotlight on businesses that make an impact.

Cassi Lowe

Written by

I help social entrepreneurs grow their online presence through web design and inbound marketing.

Good Press

Shining a spotlight on businesses that make an impact.

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