London coffee shop turns their cups into biochar

Hej poster
CC BY 2.0 Seen in HEJ/ Lloyd Alter

Does this make any sense, and is it truly circular?

While trying to find a place to get rid of my coffee cup at the HEJ café in Somerset House I noticed this story on the wall: The coffee chain takes their coffee cups and turns them into biochar (a fancy name for charcoal) certified by a group called Earthchar.

It is a lovely drawing, implying that this is somehow circular, burning the cups. But as we have noted many times, this is a linear process, turning a cup into something else that may be a good thing – but seriously, is this really necessary in a cafe for in-house consumption?

HEJ coffee cupsHEJ cups before biochar/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Trying to get more information, I tried to chase up EarthChar, which apparently was founded by researchers from Swansea University in 2016. They write:

Biochar is produced from wood and other organic matter. It is a soil amendment that improves soil structure, fertility, health and biodiversity. Biochar also stores carbon in the soil for centuries, helping to reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that cause climate change.

EarthCharEarthChar website/Screen capture

They point to a website, but it doesn't exactly have a lot of information or give a lot of confidence. In fact, I suspect that the HEJ poster is more aspirational than actually a road map of what is happening.

Biochar got a lot of press back in 2010 through 2012 when many respected green thinkers like Jim Hansen and James Lovelock thought it had great promise for sequestering carbon. Others did not think much of the idea; George Monbiot wrote then (in what seems prescient today):

...the idea that biochar is a universal solution that can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Backwards. We clutch at straws (and other biomass) in our desperation to believe there is an easy way out.

Picking up all these cups and cooking them into biochar is a lot of work and energy. It also is not a "cup-cycling, upcycling journey," which is turning something into a more valuable product. Charcoal, even with a fancy name, is still just charcoal.

Recycle binRecycle bin bursting at seams/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I look at this mess and just think that we have to get serious about circles. If people buy coffee to go, then it unlikely that the cup is going to be returned and turned into biochar. If they drink the coffee in-house, then you might as well give them a mug that gets washed and reused and is seriously circular.

This instead is like recycling Tetrapaks or Keurig capsules; it takes more energy than it is worth, and is the kind of fake environmentalism that exists only to make the people who buy the product and waste all this paper feel better about what they know is fundamentally wrong. Credit is due to HEJ for trying something better than just landfilling their cups, but it seems like an awful lot of work, and it doesn't seem like it makes an awful lot of sense for coffee that is being consumed on site.

Just gimme a mug. I am not going anywhere with it.

London coffee shop turns their cups into biochar
Does this make any sense, and is it truly circular?

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