// BUILDING COFFEE CUPS FROM RECYCLED COFFEE GROUNDS
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST EPISODE RIGHT HERE:
P.S. You'll find the interview transcript below
In this interview, you'll learn more about
- How living in Italy changed Julian's life and what it takes to convince doubters of a brilliant idea
- The stony path to creating the perfect product & why it's important to just get started
- How to start a business without funding, but with a big portion of passion and belief
- What impact Kaffeeform has on both the local coffee shops and the consumers
- The potentials of zero-waste, circular economy & how it might change our future
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// KAFFEEFORM - FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
For this pre-Christmas episode, Claudi visited Julian Lechner who is the founder and inventor of Kaffeeform - a Berlin backyard startup that is producing reusable coffee cups from recycled coffee grounds. The idea and the story behind it is so brilliant and unique that Kaffeeform is getting a lot of attention and requests from all over the world, from Oslo to Korea.
Julian started his business Berlin style: Without money, from a garage, pretty DIY - but with a big portion of passion and belief in his idea. He gave me a tour of the Kaffeeform headquarters in a Kreuzberg backyard and showed me how the production works.
And how it works is so simple, yet fascinating: he goes around some local Kreuzberg coffee shops, collects their coffee waste, then dries it in little ovens, vacuum-seals it, sends it down to Southern Germany where the it gets molded with organic bio-polymers - no plastic, no toxics, no waste.
The result is one-of-a-kind: a beautiful, chocolate brown cup which is reusable and pretty much break proof. That’s what it means to go zero-waste, that’s what lies ahead of us.
Man I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this episode. If you love coffee - this is a whole new level. And if not, I promise you’ll still be inspired and get lots of good stuff out of it!
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF OUR INTERVIEW
Hi Julian, really great to be here with you today - thanks so much for letting me come over and showing me how everything works. Letting me check out your little production site and have a sneak peak behind the scenes.
When we first met at Oslo Kaffee a few weeks ago, you really really impressed me. You came up with such a unique idea - to produce coffee cups from used coffee ground… and you are the first one! It’s your invention! That’s really special, I’m excited and can’t wait to hear everything about it. What makes you tick and click and excited to get up every morning, what you’ve learned on your way and so on.
So to kick off this episode with you, I’d love to know, just very briefly, what is Kaffeeform for you - draw a little picture for the listeners out there: what do you want the world to see in it?
Kaffeeform is basically a concept of recycling old coffee waste from local coffee bars. It’s an ongoing process where we collect the grounds, the waste, from the shops and we transform it into new objects - which are cups. So people can enjoy their coffee from old waste coffee from their local coffee shops.
Ah nice. Such a really really cool idea. How did you come up with it? I’d love you to take us a bit into that story of how this beautiful idea developed in your mind. How did it happen, what was your reason, your drive for making Kaffeeform real?
I studied product design in Italy and we were obsessed with coffee. I couldn’t even enter the university without having a coffee. And then I would go somewhere and somebody else would ask me to have another coffee. I ended up with six espressi by the end of the day (almost shaking).
Then at some point I was wondering: what would happen with all the coffee we consume here. And the barista would say “why are you asking, we throw it away. There is no use for it, what do you think!”. So I started to realize that there is so much coffee everywhere and we just overlook the amount of the raw material. I asked them how much waste they would have at the end of the day - and it’s quite a big bag, like around 6 kilos. Everyday. So I thought, I have to do something with that.
I started to look further into producing some material from it, doing experiments, did some research about existing stuff. But there were mostly these kind of old fashioned recipes for using it in the household to reduce smell in the fridge.
Haha, really? Well, definitely not as sexy as your coffee cups.
Haha, exactly. I took it and started to dry - because it goes off really quick. In the beginning I dried it really manual, on big sheets in an overheated room…
Did you just turn up the heater?
Yeah, really basic stuff. Just playing around with that. There was no real clue or guideline to follow with the whole process. I started to do research into old techniques. Because there are some old recipes from ancient times, where carpenters used would stick things together with some protein-based stuff and… interesting things…
How did you research all that? Just googled?
No, I started the whole project in university. So we had quite good access to laboratories, to libraries and very keen staff and teachers.
What did they say? What did the people say when you started to tell them “hey, I got this idea…”?
It sounds like a joke in the beginning. But once you realize the crazy amount of coffee out there in the world, then you see a potential. But it was still very manual, I had to convince people by showing them little first results.
It happened that I had a very small amount of time to finish off the project, about three or four months, so I had to really quickly come up with results. Because the university and the teachers, from the design perspective, they wanted to see an object, something they could use. Not just a crazy idea, they wanted to see something. First, I worked around melted sugars with the coffee…
So that the sugar should stick together the coffee?
Yes. And the results were really beautiful small cups, dark brown, almost chocolate-like looking and people could realize “hey, that’s how it could look like in the end”...
Okay, but then something with the sugar didn’t quite work out, right? Something must have changed.
Exactly. The sugar coffee cups were nice objects…
And it also kind of fits together… sugar plus coffee…
Yeah, think about it, the coffee would sweeten itself in the cups 🙂 It really did. So there was always fun stuff coming up which we didn’t have in mind before. But these cups were only one-time-use-cups in a way. So it wasn’t quite sustainable yet. And some of them would break and then you had a mess on your table. Time to improve again. At some point I got in touch with a laboratory and they would help out to develop something further with it.
That’s good! And now it consists out of the coffee ground and I think some kind of wood you said?
Yes, we add beechwood to it. The coffee waste itself, after we dried it out, is very similar to milled wood. It turns stiff if you add the right binders to it. So we had to do a lot of research into glues and binders and into existing and forward-thinking without all this wasteful stuff like mineral-based binders and really harmful things that are existing.
There are some really interesting trends, like starch cellulose, bio-polymers… and we created a recipe around it. It’s not the coffee itself would stick stable enough, so you had to have some upcoming technology around it.
So it’s all organic.
Exactly. It’s all renewable material. No harmful plastics. We use a lot of machines from the plastic industry, but we can kind of adapt them to new processes using bio-polymers. So it’s looking at existing techniques and bringing them a step further.
Very good. The whole thing is very much linked around the whole zero-waste-movement. Is that something you were always very much into, or familiar with and thought about before? Or did it just coincide and you just glided into it?
No, I was always attracted by circular work, where an object would become something new and you could use it for another purpose. So it was something in a row let’s say, from other ideas and projects before.
Cool. It’s the future! I mean you here so much about it now and I think people become more and more familiar with it.
Exactly. To see something further. That the process of an ‘end’ could be continued with another thing.
That’s beautiful, I like that. And, I mean you studied in Italy, you came up with the idea over there, then you came back to Berlin. And now, I’ve just seen… I mean we’re here at Paul-Lincke-Ufer, in one of those amazing Kreuzberg-backyards. You’re working together with Mosaic, which is a charity workshop working with disabled people which is awesome.
How did it start though? You told me just earlier that in the beginning, you made the cups at home!
Yeah, it’s really like a garage startup let’s say 🙂 I started to collect the coffee here. Sourced it, dried it on my own, then we did the production, I had all these cups… I mean, a startup always starts with a bit of money to invest in the machines - but I was kind of broke. I didn’t have any additional funding or venture capital from some investors. It’s all private. And I invested in a little fair stand at a small coffee festival in Amsterdam with my last resources and did a little presentation around it. I showed the final objects - and people were so amazed! They came and bought all our cups. We already felt here it’s a success and people like it. So it was the first stage of the growth of Kaffeeform.
But it was really manual. Back in the garage, I had to collect more coffee and quickly it became quite a lot of work. So I got in touch with Mosaic, and these days they help me with all the logistics.
That’s a really inspiring story Julian. You have to have a lot of trust and believe in your project, to start with the lowest means and no money… But it worked out and this just shows, you don’t always need huge back up and capital. If you believe in what you do and you believe this is a great asset for the world then somehow it works out.
Now, I want to extract a few deeper secrets from you 🙂 I wanna know what makes Kaffeeform so exciting and unique…. What I didn’t see this morning is how you drive out to the cafés…
We have a collection process, where we would get all the coffee in walking distance, so we can just walk over to the cafés, collect and bring it back. Which is happening every week day, sometimes even twice from the same café and then we do the drying on the same day.
Wow. What I found really interesting was that you said you don’t produce continuously. You rather wait until there’s a certain amount and then it all starts. Which makes sense.
Exactly. We have, say three batches where we would plan and run the whole production. So we try to shift it really even. It’s not about a mass production thing. It’s more about serving the local requests.
You make good use of your storage space as well. You don’t need to store huge amounts, produce on the order… But where are the cups being made actually. You got the dried coffee - but how does it turn into coffee cups?
I realized very quickly that, as a startup, without the help of external companies, you need to have strong partners in a way. But I always wanted to keep it independent. So I commissioned scientists to work with me a bit on the material side. And then we created a recipe and now it’s manufactured by a bigger manufacturer. They adapted their process to the coffee recycling and we can produce the raw material there, which happens in the southern part of Germany. And then we also made changes to big metallic molds and huge machines, super expensive stuff, to produce the cups. It’s another adaption to machines which are already out there. I didn’t wanna buy these machines and said “hey, let’s think about something new and reuse your machines with that”.
God, I’m so with you for that. Not everyone has to always buy something new…...buy, or own something. Just get your idea out and convince people to do something and build a chain production around it.
That’s how it happens, three times a year. We have three steps: collecting the coffee everyday, then we run the production and then from here, Paul-Lincke-Ufer, the main hub of the coffee and the storage of products, we ship it out.
Cool. And how long does it take from when the coffee ground arrives here until there is a cup?
Until there’s a cup, it takes about 5 weeks until it arrives back here.
Okay - and do you need any special type of coffee to do that, or it doesn’t matter? Does it smell actually?
Yeah, yeah. You have an undertone of coffee scent during the production and all these production places smell like roasters.
It does! When we entered the workspace of Mosaic this morning, I smelled it and thought “mmmh, I didn’t have a coffee yet”.
Yeah, it’s so funny. And the average industrial workers aren’t used to that. Usually their production space would smell totally different. Then they started to work with it and everything smelled like a big coffee roasters. It’s something really unusual.
So do you need to watch out for different coffee types?
No, because it’s very finely milled, it can work with all sorts of coffee. These days, we started to collect from small coffee shops, who have also an eye on maybe fair trade coffee or they have direct trade coffee. It’s a plus for the whole story, but for the production side, it doesn’t matter.
Who are your main partners, which coffee shops… can you say it? How many do you have?
We work here with around five places in Berlin, mostly located in Kreuzberg.
Just because it’s easier, because you are in Kreuzberg too?
Exactly. We think of maybe - but this is a bit of futuristic thoughts - having inside-drying sources that we could bring to the coffee shops so they could dry the coffee themselves and we can collect from places further away. Because we have a bit of a problem with the quick drying process, and there are so many offerings if we could collect somewhere, or people want to send us coffee.
I was gonna ask that. I’m sure as there is more and more attention for Kaffeeform, I’m sure there’s lots of people knocking on your door.
Exactly. And because of the long ways, they would need store it and dry it at their shops.
Good idea! I’m excited how that grows. And what do you think is the one aspect about Kaffeeform and your cups, that surprises people the most?
It’s an emotional attachment that people get, because they have no idea that it’s actually possible to create a solid object from it. So they’re super amazed, like “really, that’s the real coffee?”. And then, they’re kind of part of the whole process, because they already had a coffee in the same coffee shop in the morning and they see, wow, somebody is doing something from it. So people become part of the whole story without being forced. No one says “you HAVE to do something like this”. They can just continue their consumption and they can play with that.
How good is that?! Like you go everyday to Concierge coffee here around the corner and then you know, hey they’re doing this.
Exactly. And then they go back to these places because they know they are part of that whole thing and they want to drink their coffee there to support. So things come together. When they serve even the cups there, people try them out, the coffee shops have more interest from other sides, getting busier.
Makes total sense! And which stage of the entire production, or business process (in general) makes your heart sing most (where do you feel happiest)?
In the whole chain? It’s always amazing when you see people using your objects and they like it. And the baristas tell you new things that they found out while using your product, which you haven’t thought about. For example, they’re really break-proof and solid. And they told me that in the average day, around 3,4,5 of the porcelain cups would break, so they always have to replace. That will take more resources and cost them more money and they would be disappointed with the product. But our cups are super break-proof, super solid and super light. When they fall down, they don’t break that easily. So we found something out which is improving their daily life.
That’s nice! Things you don’t think about initially - first you just want to reuse the coffee - and then there’s this added benefit.
Exactly. And of course, the collecting part is fun, when you see all the amount of coffee from the local communities. And the requests from the sales side - I’m always surprised who finds out about our products, who buys them. We’re receiving extremely nice emails.
I think that! I mean I know already from our first chat that things start going big on international levels too, right? That’s so awesome. Did you actually plan it that way when you started? Did you have those big visions of doing that on a global scale?
I had no clue if people would even like it! From the very first steps, when we had the first mock-ups, I knew that people liked it, but I wasn’t sure if they would also buy it. But then quickly… there’s so many coffee lovers out there, people looking for new ideas and interesting stuff.
Which are the biggest markets? Apart from Germany, where is the highest interest now?
We receive a lot of interest from Scandinavia. They got a big coffee culture, interest in sustainability, also interest in supporting stuff. There’s a rising scene in Oslo for example. We are also working with someone to become more famous in Sweden. And then from the other side of the world, I had visitors coming from Korea. They just came from Korea to see Kaffeeform here. One morning, some students were standing here and wanted to see how everything works. They wanted to bring it back and present this stuff. Like these days, we’re in blogs, presentations come up, people spread it out and then the story somehow goes to other parts of the world. In Japan people are asking…
So Asia is kicking off, yeah?
Yes, I’m sure that Asia will be very exciting to work with. But these days, we still focus around Europe. I mean there are a lot of places and options to continue here. And then, let’s see...
How exciting! I guess you also got quite a lot of attention already from the media, from companies and brands wanting to work with you etc. Does that scare you sometimes?
Hmm. It scares sometimes that there is such a big division of requests. You have really easy, low-amount requests which you can fulfill. But it’s a small production place, you can’t cope with very big companies, so you have to find a balance of things that you can manage. And I think it’s better to build up a little network of smaller places, something solid instead of focussing on some big coop’s and then maybe ending up really harmed…
Yep, it’s nice to grow step by step.
Yes, organic growth is better than always looking for the biggest coop, looking how much money we can get… Can quickly turn into the opposite.
That’s true. Now, turning it to Berlin a little bit - I know you were in Italy when it all started. But seriously, I’m not surprised that an idea like that was born in this city 🙂 Just the best place to try new things, no? Why do you think that concepts like Kaffeeform work so well in Berlin at the moment?
I think… I mean I grew up here, I was actually born here, so there were always strong relations to come back and start something here. People are super open-minded, very keen to explore new things and new thoughts. And then, from here people take it out to different countries, different places. It’s a nice hub of international people here. And people think very local. The “Kiez” culture works very well, where you support your local coffee shop. You get in touch with a new product and people just spread the word.
True true that’s it. There is this “makers” culture…
Exactly. And then you meet someone and he knows somebody…
I imagine! And tell me, how do you see your own standpoint as an eco-preneur in the Berlin green scene? Do you feel the community is supportive? Collaborative? Or is it still that everyone a bit on his own?
For the moment, I don’t see big competition. I think there is quite a lot of interest and possibilities, also for collaboration. And also support. I realized step by step that there is even some support from the government side. We had a very nice request from the European Union, which came up here in Berlin. They contacted us and then we could ship out cups to a big presentation. They bought a lot of cups, it was a good coop. But yeah, you see that there are movements here and things are growing so it helps. People here are networking a lot.
Yes. I think that’s one of the most important things. People all have their values and they often stand for something good and want to make things a little bit better. And that only works if you work together, exchange ideas, brainstorm, get new inspiration…
Exactly. And doing presentations where people just come, they have an interest… But on the other side, I think it’s kind of starting everywhere, that people look “hey, they are doing something interesting, so I can maybe do it as well”.
Yes. It’s going away from big corporations and elbow pushing. It’s much more small people with bright ideas coming together and doing something. And what makes you feel really passionate and excited about being part of the Berlin eco scene?
I think it’s great to inspire. To provoke something, pushing things. And also on the material side, giving an example “hey, we can source something local and we can produce something”. And I think it’s great to get in touch with different entrepreneurial stuff and to support the local community in a way.
That’s really really good. You created something awesome there. It must feel really good - probably in a few years, you’ll look back and think “wow, I made this for the world and see where it is now”. I’m sure this is only the start…. I’m sorry, you’re really cold, right? We’re nearly done!
Maybe we have another hot coffee 🙂
Slowly coming to the end. Now, this is where I ask the same questions to all of my interview guests… I mean, as a company you still have a very young history - but in the short time, what’s been your biggest learning so far? Was there an aha-moments that stood out?
I wasn’t aware of the demand, like what would be the production size we need to store before we receive the first requests. And my aha-moment came from the media side: when people would write about us, or push something on the blogs or magazines, we had SO many requests. There was like a peak, from here to there a lot of requests, and then again nothing. We have always these crazy peaks where something is growing super quick and then you wait again for the next publication or so. I didn’t realize that it has such an impact.
That’s awesome. Must push your adrenaline levels. Next: If you could change one thing in Berlin within the next 24 hours - what would it be?
That’s a tricky one. What I would really like to see is that some of the cardboard cups that are being used in the coffee shops could be reduced. You really need to have in mind that they are coated with harmful wax coating inside. They look like paper, but they can’t be easily recycled. There is compostable stuff out there and it’s coming for the lids, but the cup itself, there are not so many opportunities to reduce these. And I would really like to see less of these cups being used.
Wow, I’m definitely with you on that. I didn’t know… I mean of course there is already the paper waste, but that kind of adds another level to it. This has to be changed! Okay, now: what question should we have asked you but didn’t?
That’s an interesting one… What’s the future?
And what’s the answer?
I think the first cups are out since a year. There aren’t any cups we received back or let’s say someone wants to replace it. But at some point an object cycle will end, so we have to think about what’s next. What could be done after cups have this end of their cycle. So there are some ideas arising: can we produce another object from the cup? Can we shred it? We want to look into table tops, maybe making a nice surface. Or producing some sort of 3D printing filament… So there are some afterthoughts from the existing product cycle.
That’s really great! Never stand still, that’s an important thing. Okay, last question: If there was one thing you could pass on to the GreenMe Berlin community, the people out there (just anything that comes to your mind straight away - call to action, a quote, a statement ) - what would it be?
Think about the impact you can give to something. You make so many decisions each day and then you pay for different services or objects. And you decide where to put in your money and your strength and power. There are all these things you overlook every day, like basic stuff and you don’t care. But it has an impact on the big scale! And everybody can contribute, every day. I think it’s just the starting...
Yeah, woah! Super good, I love it! It’s such a powerful thought to finish… Julian, thank you SO much! I feel really lucky that I had the chance to talk to you - I somehow got the feeling that this is only the beginning of a big, exciting journey….
I don’t know about you, but I found it fascinating to see that it’s possible to create a completely new, beautifully designed and useful object out of something that you’d normally consider as waste! Ideas like this really leave an impact out there and I’m glad that Berlin wakes up so much creative spirit….
So always remember: times aren’t that bad! There’s so much good change coming our ways, all we have to do is to be open and positive about it, talk to others and share the excitement.
As Julian said, everything we do and buy makes an impact out there - and what could be better than doing good, while enjoying a delicious cup of coffee?
// FINAL NOTES:
Make sure you get yourself one of these special recycled coffee cups - I can promise you, they look and feel amazing. AND make a really unique gift as well, in case you’re running last minute for Christmas.
I’ll put you all the details about Kaffeeform in the show notes, together with a list of which cafés and shops are selling worldwide - from Berlin to Copenhagen.
And if you’re not in yet, sign up for the GreenMe Berlin newsletter and I’ll let you know as soon as the next inspiring interview goes online. But it’s not just a newsletter, you’ll also get to download a little best of guide to some of my favorite places for free.
Thanks SO much for listening, hope you have a beautiful day
>> Bye bye for now - and remember to keep it green !!
// SHOW NOTES
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