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Coffee grounds bring new energy to Miami farm

The new project at the school's farm composts hundreds of pounds of coffee per week.

The two students sitting in the car behind the Armstrong Student Center don't drink a lot of coffee.

Shawnee Waters, the grad student behind the wheel, goes through a reusable K-cup maybe once or twice a month. Hanna Gonce, the junior math major riding shotgun, doesn't drink any caffeine. The ten buckets of coffee grounds in the back seat are more than they'll make in a lifetime.

They're also business as usual.

Waters and Gonce run the Coffee Grounds Project for Miami's Environmental Health and Safety Office. Every Friday, they collect used grounds from buildings across campus and bring them to the new Miami Institute for Food Farm for composting. Last semester they collected just over 2,000 pounds and they're on track to beat that total this week. They recently added their first location from uptown and a second car to help gather everything.

The composting project is the brainchild of Waters and farm education manager Lauren Wulker. Until last year, the grounds from the campus didn't go to the farm behind Yager Stadium. A third-party company, Organix, would collect them and bring them elsewhere to be composted.

But while many environmentally friendly companies have grown, composting companies have struggled to keep their clients.

"The market's gone way down," Waters said, adding that Miami has stepped in to fill the gap. "It has to be in-house now."

Gonce started working with the Environmental Office two years ago as a Zero Waste ambassador for her dorm.

"It just kinda snowballed from there," said Gonce.

She was working on the battery recycling project last spring when Waters approached her about the new coffee project. They only collected from three places in the first month -- Armstrong, Cole Physical Facilities Building, and the Miami Rec Center. That increased to seven collection spots by the end of last semester and nine by February.

This growth has doubled the average amount of coffee grounds they collect per week, from 106 pounds last semester to 216 this semester.

After collecting the grounds at Armstrong, the two of them split up. Waters takes another car to collect from the other main suppliers: the Maplestreet Station facilities, King Library, and the Oxford Coffee Company. Gonce will pick up smaller trash bags from six buildings on campus. They both end up dumping their grounds at the farm at roughly the same time.

Gonce comes into Alumni Hall just after noon to collect the grounds from the faculty lounge. None of the eight professors inside pay much attention as she goes through the collection process.

The farm makes it easy for the smaller buildings to collect the grounds by supplying a plastic bucket and a roll of trash bags for each location. She takes the bag out of the bucket, weighs it on a portable electronic scale, and opens a new bag in the bucket. The bags end up in the trunk, left untied for easy access later.

"I go home smelling like this," Gonce admits, "and it grosses me out."

Meanwhile, Shawnee pulls up to the Oxford Coffee Company. Located on Lynn Street next to LaRosa's Pizza, Oxford Coffee is a roaster, supply store, and coffee shop. The owners reached out to the Farm in January about donating some of their grounds. Barista Tom Bellamy says the shop will give grounds away upon customer request.

"People really like coffee in their gardens," says Bellamy.

Using coffee grounds for gardening has several benefits. The original beans are acidic and too much acid is bad for plants, but the grounds are much closer to neutral; most of the acid is brewed away in the drink. They're also rich in nitrogen, which speeds up decomposition and helps plants fuel their photosynthesis.

The composting happens at the "historic Austin-Magie farm," run by Miami's Institute for Food a mile north of Oxford. The road into the fields changes from a winding two-lane to a gravel drive to a dirt trail. The last few days had been below freezing, but when Gonce finished her rounds and pulled up to the farm, it was warm enough that the dirt had turned into mud.

The composting piles are on the left of the dirt road, across from the actual fields. Bales of hay are built into a makeshift container to hold the grounds and the occasional bad crop.

"The grounds go in the middle as our main source of nitrogen," says Gonce.

It takes a few weeks of collection to completely fill the compost pile, and a few more months before it will be used in the field.

Waters hopes the project will continue growing after she graduates in May.

"You want to get the local community involved," says Waters.