Our quest to make the UK's most sustainable cup of coffee

By streamlining its supply chain and using its research strengths, the University of Sheffield is on a mission to provide its staff and students with the UK’s most sustainable cup of coffee.

Coffee beans

Coffee may seem an inconsequential place to start a sustainability quest. But when the numbers involved include 10 tonnes of coffee, 430,000 pints of milk and 750,000 single-use cups a year, it’s easy to see how, if we can understand which bits of this supply chain are unsustainable and remove or improve them, we can have a big impact.

The Milk

The University of Sheffield's quest to make the UK’s most sustainable cup of coffee starts in Dungworth, a small village four miles outside Sheffield. Dungworth has a village pub, a school and, most importantly for this story, the only dairy farm producing, processing and bottling its own milk in Sheffield. The Our Cow Molly dairy began life in 1947 as Hector Andrew & Co. and has been supplying Sheffield with milk for three generations.

Our Cow Molly milk

In 2010 the University was looking to renew its milk supply contract. At that time, the University used ‘Yorkshire’ milk; milk from cows across Yorkshire which was then taken to London for pasteurisation and bottling before being brought back to Sheffield for use in the University’s cafes.

A chance encounter with an ice cream from Our Cow Molly led to the University’s commercial team exploring whether the local dairy could supply all of the cafes on campus. If this were possible, the road miles involved in the University’s milk would be reduced hugely and, just as importantly, the University would have a direct relationship with its milk supplier, ensuring a fair and equitable partnership.

Without the support of the University of Sheffield we wouldn't have had the confidence to invest in our new dairy and it would just have been a matter of time until the current dairy was unable to continue any longer and close.

Eddie Andrew, Our Cow Molly owner

There were, however, obstacles to overcome, such as justifying the benefits when faced with a cost increase of around 10p a pint. The University worked closely with Our Cow Molly to explore this further, and in addition to supporting the local community and sustainable dairy farming, research found that fresher milk made a better coffee - something that was worth investing in.

As milk ages, its nutrition and flavour decline. The protein in milk is the key ingredient to a silky smooth latte or cappuccino. As soon as milk leaves a cow, the protein depletes, so the time between cow and coffee makes a huge difference in both the appearance and taste of the drink. Our Cow Molly milk goes from cow to cafe in under 24 hours, meaning the University’s coffee was not only more ethical, but it tasted better too.

This challenge overcome, the University initially started offering Our Cow Molly in a limited number of outlets as the dairy could not meet the demands of the whole campus. But thanks to the security of the University contract, Our Cow Molly was able to secure investment to build a new £500,000 state-of-the-art dairy, taking its maximum weekly output from 8,000 litres to 40,000 litres meaning that by 2016, all milk used in University and Students’ Union outlets was from Our Cow Molly.

The University now receives the freshest milk delivery in the UK, with milk travelling only four miles from the cow to the coffee shop on the very same day. By purchasing locally, every penny from the milk remains in Sheffield, benefiting the local economy and community. By using a local supplier, the University’s carbon footprint and environmental impact is also minimised. Our Cow Molly’s investment also enabled it to fit solar panels to power its processing plant - Sheffield milk is now cooled by the sun.

Our Cow Molly owner Eddie Andrew:

"Without the support of the University of Sheffield we wouldn’t have had the confidence to invest in our new dairy and it would just have been a matter of time until the current dairy was unable to continue any longer and close. If all our milk was sold to the big processors, a small farm like ours wouldn’t be viable."

From employing six people as a family farm, Our Cow Molly now has 22 employees. Its Farm Shop and ice cream parlour are now a tourist attraction in their own right, ranking fifth on Tripadvisor for things to do in Sheffield.

The partnership has had an impact beyond Sheffield. TUCO, the national university purchasing organisation, is introducing a framework to ensure that no UK university buys milk that results in the dairy farmer receiving an unsustainable price - an initiative that the University of Sheffield has been instrumental in making a reality.

The University has also helped Our Cow Molly to roll out the lessons of the project to farms nationwide. Through Open Farm Sundays up and down the country, thousands of people have learnt about benefits of this kind of partnership and that it is possible for consumers to make a difference.

The partnership highlighted the problem with single issue environmentalism and why it is important to take a systems-level approach to sustainability challenges. For example, one of the major objections and concerns to dairy farming is the methane emissions it produces. Our Cow Molly’s new dairy is fitted with a methane-reclamation system to harvest the methane produced by its cows. But for this system to work, the cow dung used needs to be freshly collected, which would mean keeping the cows in a barn year-round, necessitating increased feed costs and lowering the nutritional value of the milk.

The University is now working on research to look into the different nutritional value of milk from cows that graze outdoors and those kept inside, and the soil secret agents that grow the best grass to graze dairy cattle on. This will help Our Cow Molly to make an informed decision about its use of the methane plant and how to feed its cattle.

It’s long been assumed that consumers can have little impact on where their stuff comes from. By partnering with Our Cow Molly, the University of Sheffield has shown that it is well within the power of large organisations to use their purchasing decisions to improve conditions for local producers.

The University demanded a more sustainable supply chain and showed we could help suppliers to deliver.

The Coffee

Getting to know a local dairy farmer four miles from campus and understanding their requirements and challenges was in many ways relatively simple. The question was - could the University do the same for a product sourced over 5,000 miles away?

Coffee in bag

The University had previously not given much thought to where its coffee came from. Its existing supply was Fair Trade, but after this there was not much more known about where it was picked or how it reached campus. This was despite the fact each 18g cup of coffee requires 40g of coffee beans, harvested in a manual, intensive labour process. Following the Our Cow Molly example, here again was a product the University wanted to understand more about to ensure its procurement practices were having a positive impact.

When the University's coffee contract came up for renewal it challenged suppliers to show the sources of their product. Large producers were unable to do this, but a local company, Roastology, stepped in; not only with a great product, but one with known pedigree.

Working with a coffee-growing cooperative called CENCOIC in the Cauca region of Colombia, Roastology could tell the University exactly which farms its coffee was grown on. It would then be processed and shipped directly to Sheffield, were it was roasted only three miles from campus.

Coffee bags




Bryan Unkles, Director, Roastology:

"As a local, independently owned business we are extremely proud to be working with the University of Sheffield and excited as we look to forge closer links with the CENCOIC cooperative. We have already seen an impact on the additional business from the University which has resulted in one new full time position with another planned, resulting in local job creation."

By cutting out steps in the supply chain, the University has not only ensured that each partner gets their fair share of profit, but has enabled representatives of the University to visit the farms where its coffee is grown. This environmental investment in flights has given a greater understanding of the needs of our coffee producers, allowing the University to link its coffee procurement with its wider research being carried out in Colombia to co-design improvements to agriculture and living conditions.

Working with the Colombian Government and local experts, a team of Sheffield scientists is undertaking a project to understand the links between Colombia’s rich biodiversity and a sustainable bioeconomy. This research will look at how the country’s carbon-rich soils can be exploited, such as for coffee farming, without having a negative impact on conservation or society. In this way, the University’s research will have a direct positive impact on the living conditions of its coffee growers.

Another project is going to see Sheffield researchers look at how waste coffee bean cherries could be used in an anaerobic digester which creates methane gas as a bi-product. This could be used by farmers to cook on, negating the need for the smoky wood fires that are currently used.

What the University of Sheffield’s coffee procurement process has shown is that even when dealing with products produced and processed on the other side of the world, it is possible to take full control of the supply chain. It’s also shown how vital gaining direct experience of suppliers’ challenges. In this way, the University can bring its research powers to bear on sustainability challenges on a global scale.

The Cups

The University's outlets sell almost one million hot drinks a year, and the vast majority of these are in single-use, non-recyclable cups. To ignore what consumers are actually drinking from would therefore be a huge missed opportunity to make a cup of coffee more sustainable.

Campus cup

In this area, the University has two goals. Firstly, to reduce the number of single-use cups that are used. Secondly, accepting that there will always be a need for single-use cups in some situations, what can be done to make these more sustainable?

In the first instance, the University has taken two economic nudge actions; a 20p reduction in price for bringing a reusable cup, coupled with a trial equivalent increase if a single-use cup is used - a 40p difference in price between the sustainable and non-sustainable option.

It is currently too early to judge if these actions are having success. It’s known that economic incentives do have an impact on behaviour; consumers will happily spend £100 in a supermarket, but have baulked at spending 5p on a plastic bag, to such an extent that their use has dropped 85 per cent since the introduction of the levy in 2015. If the University can have a similar effect on its use of single-use cups, this would go a huge way towards fighting waste on campus.

But economic nudges also require a practical, easy alternative to switch the undesirable behaviour to. To use plastic bags as an example, it’s very easy for shoppers to put a few reusable bags in the boot of their car when they are making a specific shopping trip. In the case of single-use cups, it’s much harder to convince consumers to carry a reusable alternative around in the off-chance they fancy a hot drink.

So the University has introduced Campus Cup - the first ever coffee cup return scheme to run on a UK campus. Campus Cup combines the ease of buying a hot drink in a disposable cup, with the environmental benefits of using a reusable cup. Staff and students put down a £5 deposit to join the scheme and receive a Campus Cup sleeve. Participants receive their hot drink in a reusable cup and once they have finished, return the used cup to any cafe on campus, without needing to clean the cup themselves.

The scheme is being slowly expanded and is still being trialled to see how it works with larger numbers of users. It’s not perfect; there is no way to track how many cups a user might have received, meaning there is leakage in the cup supply as they gather in offices and kitchens. A better scheme is being investigated that would involve an electronic chip linked to students and staff registration cards, requiring a cup to be returned before a new one could be taken. The logistics of signing up and the movement of cups around campus also need refining.

But despite these problems, the University is signed up to the principle of making a cup deposit scheme work. It may be that the current scheme is replaced entirely with v2.0 - but the University is taking a pragmatic approach and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

So what about the second aspect of cups - if there is always going to be demand for single-use cups, how can we make them as sustainable as possible? Over 2.5 billion disposable paper cups are used every year. That’s 5,000 every minute. Only 1 in 400 are recycled. The rest end up in landfill or are incinerated.

Here again, the University of Sheffield has been investigating the possibilities. In 2018 it ran a trial of a recyclable single-use cup. This involved a two-part cup called Frugalcup, which can be recycled alongside other paper and card as normal.

The University has introduced Campus Cup - the first ever coffee cup return scheme to run on a UK campus. Campus Cup combines the ease of buying a hot drink in a disposable cup, with the environmental benefits of using a reusable cup.

Unfortunately, the trial was not a success. As with other recycling, the cup needed to be clean to ensure it didn’t contaminate the rest of the bin. Users were simply putting their Frugalcups into mixed recycling bins, resulting in coffee grounds and coffee being spilled over the rest of the contents and meaning it was rejected at streaming.

Not to be deterred, the University is currently working on what further infrastructure is needed to make Frugalcup work, for example additional containers for coffee dregs. It hopes to run further trials in the near future.

Sustainability at Sheffield in a microcosm

What the University of Sheffield’s action on a cup of coffee shows is how something as insignificant as a daily cup of coffee can be a catalyst for change when organisations with a large buying power take an interest in their supply chains.

When many are resigned to the influence of the large distributors and supermarkets and the forces of globalisation behind them, the University of Sheffield has shown that demanding a more sustainable supply chain is possible and achievable.

In fact, this story is only superficially about coffee. What the University of Sheffield is showing with this action is its approach to sustainability in a microcosm. Research-led institutions are uniquely placed in society to make sustainable procurement decisions - but any large organisations can, and should, be doing this. What they can do that is different however is to also use research to improve these supply chains, the processes involved, and the lives of the people behind them. And the University of Sheffield is committed to using its research to make the world we live in a better place.