Sustainable Leaders Interview: Jessica Folkerts, bio-bean

Mitchel White
June 29, 2020

All About bio-bean

Mitchel White: First question. Can you tell us all about you and bio-bean?

Jessica Folkerts: Me and bio-bean, well I’ll start with bio-bean because it’s much more interesting than me. We’re based in Cambridgeshire in the UK and we are the world’s largest recycler of spent coffee grounds. What that means is that we take spent coffee grounds from businesses at every scale across the UK and we recycle those grounds into a variety of sustainable bioproducts. Those products include Coffee Logs, which are a domestic fire log for wood burners and stoves – that’s our only consumer retail product. We also do coffee pellets; those are biomass pellets for industrial commercial scale biomass boilers. Last Autumn, we also just launched our first flavor ingredient for the food and beverage industry.

Basically, we take grounds from a single source, through a food grade supply chain that we set up this book for this purpose. We take those grounds, we extract the remaining compounds from those grounds, and we create these natural sustainable flavors that go back into foods and beverages. Sort of completing that circular loop.

Because we’ve been doing this for a while and we’ve gone through the painstaking process of understanding how coffee behaves and how you can process it, we are now kind of experts in recycling coffee and providing dried grounds as a bulk raw material that can now be applied to other product innovations in other industries. So, things such as bioplastics, 3D printing, things like that. It’s quite an exciting world that bio-bean lives in.

We’ve been going since about 2013. We have a team of 30 people now and just lots of plans for the future and going great guns. As far as me, I handle the marketing for bio-bean. I have a background in marketing and PR for real, ethical brands and organizations. That’s kind of been my passion for life and it took a variety of different shapes, particularly when I was younger, as it tends to do for a lot of people. I’ve really refined that and honed in on what I’m doing now, and I love it.

Mitchel White: Well, it sounds like, with bio-bean – especially with all of the ethics and the company’s use that they’ve made of their lines – like you’re a good fit for it.

Jessica Folkerts: Well, I think so. I think it is a great fit. The bio-bean team is made up of people who are quite passionate. Even if they didn’t start at bio-bean because they were really into sustainability, working at bio-bean has kind of brought that to the surface for them and it’s much more prominent in their minds and now their behaviors may have changed in ways that may have changed them. It’s just a real passionate team. We’re committed to making a real impact, but at scale. For us it’s all about scale. There’s great innovations happening in organizations of all sizes around the world and that’s wonderful. We absolutely support that and advocate it and we feel that, for those to make the biggest impact that they can, it has to be scaled up. So for us, that’s what we’re trying to do.

What Sustainability Means For bio-bean

Mitchel White: Make sense. Following on from that, what do you think when you hear the word “sustainable”. Obviously, it means a lot of different things to different people, so what do you think when you hear that?

Jessica Folkerts: It gets confused for quite a few different things and it gets tossed around a bit loosely. For us at bio-bean, it means it’s good for the environment, good for people, but again, very much built to last. It has to be built to last. Whatever positive impact we might be making on the environment and/or people, it isn’t simply fleeting or temporary, it’s really going to be a lasting change. So that, financially, we can continue to grow and develop as a business, creating greater impact as we move forward.

Mitchel White: That’s great. Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind bio-bean and how it came to be and to become the world’s largest recycler of coffee grounds?

Jessica Folkerts: I mean, I do love that claim that we are technically the world’s largest recycler of coffee grounds, but really we’re kind of the only ones doing it at this scale. So, it’s ever so slightly boastful, but that’s marketing, right?

Bio-bean, as I said, was founded in 2013 and it was founded by a student named Arthur Kay.

He was an architecture student, actually, at UCL and he’d been tasked with working on a project to create a coffee shop with a closed loop system. During that project, he noticed the volume of waste coffee grounds coming out of coffee shops and he thought there has to be something better that can happen with that resource. And he kind of had that light bulb moment, where he was sitting in a coffee shop and he had this full cup of coffee next to him and he saw this oily sheen on top and he thought there’s an oil in there, so you have to be able to do something with that. Sure enough, he did some research into using coffee oil as a fuel source, and he took that research, he gathered some advisors and bio-bean was born. The first product that they were working on were the coffee pellets. So, basically proving that it could be done. And again, at scale and that was 2013.

That was seven years ago and we’ve grown rapidly since then. We now have coffee collections across the major cities of the UK: Manchester, London, Brighton, Birmingham, and then a few areas in between where we are able to work out the logistics and we have those continuing to grow as well. Again, businesses at every scale are taking part; it could be a small coffee shop on the High Street of London, to one of our biggest partners at Costa Coffee. We’ve been working with them for a long time. It’s just a great program that’s going on and continually developing.

A Marketing Manager’s Responsibilities

Mitchel White: How does your day as marketing manager fit into that? Obviously, you have everyone going and collecting all of the grounds and all of those sticks involved. What does the marketing manager do at bio-bean?

Jessica Folkerts: A little bit of everything. I am currently a one-woman marketing department. I have to be a Jane-of-all-trades, master of at least a few. I have to say I love that. Working in small organizations, in general, I get to have a greater voice and get my fingers in more pieces of the pie.

At bio-bean, no day is the same. There’s always loads going on and it keeps me on my toes and there are pretty interesting challenges and really interesting material to be working with. I could be doing anything from creating a month’s worth of social content or hopefully two months if I can get to it, to blog content, to creating our marketing strategy, to supporting our annual deliverables in our 5-year plan, to building media inquiries or hosting a film crew on-site, to meeting our directors about our internal communications activities, or conducting market research around a potential new territory. It’s every piece of marketing that you can imagine, from ad hoc web developments and designing a flyer, to the full kit and caboodle, brand strategy, brand refresh. Yeah, I love it.

Mitchel White: It sounds intense, but rewarding.

Jessica Folkerts: That’s the perfect way to describe it – intense, but rewarding. But if it wasn’t intense, I wouldn’t enjoy it. With bio-bean, we’re not a startup anymore; we’re definitely in the SME, we call it sort of the teenage years – we’re growing. Everybody who works at bio-bean is along the same ilk; we all like to get stuck in. If it wasn’t challenging, we’d be bored out of our minds.

Their Business Approach

Mitchel White: It seems like a great place to work; I think I might just come and work for you guys.

Next question – how do you approach businesses when you’re selling the opportunity of recycling their spent grounds? How does that look in terms of that conversation? Are there different decision makers? Is sustainability a driver of that? And how important is sustainability for the brands that you work with; for example, you mentioned Costa Coffee. A few questions in there, but what are your thoughts?

Jessica Folkerts: As far as the decision makers, it’s really down to each individual business. The way that it works is we have sort of bespoke situations for different sizes of business. You can imagine that Costa Coffee has a sort of bespoke system for them, versus the High Street independent coffee shops. We work with the existing waste management and logistics infrastructure. There’s no point in reinventing that wheel; it’s there, it works, it’s fine, and we’re not in that business. We work with the existing infrastructure to collect the grounds on our behalf, and they do so with their daily general waste collection.

In many cases, businesses are approached by their waste management collecting company to offer this as a service. In other cases, particularly in the case of the larger ones, our partnerships were formed over years, with different stakeholders within the business. That could be a CEO, it could be a head of sustainability, or it could even be that champion who comes out of nowhere out of a business and is just really pushing for this to happen – that happens as well. It really does depend on each individual business.

As far as sustainability being a main driver, or whether that’s costs as a main driver, again that depends on each different business. Some businesses have approached us and they are just so keen to do this because, environmentally, it’s the right thing to do and they feel really passionate about it. And it’s going to make an impact on their carbon footprint

and on their waste reduction and even often on their waste disposal costs. For other businesses, it is all just about that. If you remove heavy, wet coffee grounds from general waste, your general waste weighs less and therefore your waste collection costs less. And because we don’t charge a gate fee, there’s often savings to be made by recycling your grounds through bio-bean, rather than sending it through other disposal methods.

I think your last question was about sustainability and how important it is to the businesses that we work with. Again, that often depends on each business, but we are definitely seeing an increase now in sustainability being the main driver, particularly now in a near post-COVID world. We’re not quite there, but coronavirus has brought about, I think, a greater increase in interest around sustainability. The circular economy is becoming more ethical in general and there’s more interest in doing the right thing for the environment and people. Because of that, and because consumers have been driving it for a few years, that’s increasing. We’re seeing signs – coming out of this crisis that we’ve been having recently – that sustainability will be a main driver. So I think for bio-bean, we’re very lucky and well-positioned to be growing and moving forward in that environment.

Mitchel White: We’ve seen that as well with some of the research that we’ve been doing into consumer behaviors and what people are interested in with this sustainability. We thought at the start of this, “Is it going to be such a big topic people. Are they going to be more concerned about health implications and their own welfare?” First, we’ll perhaps go into a recession, but we’ve seen in research that it’s actually gone the other way and that people are more concerned. That community spirit has created a lot of changes in people’s behavior and it’s about giving more people time to research these things when they’re at home and not doing much. They could watch just Netflix, or they could research the companies that they choose to invest in and perhaps do a bit of research on circular economy. So I think it’s probably gone the opposite way, where it’s gone the way I thought it would go.

A Circular Economy Future

Mitchel White: Next question. What is the benefit of sustainability in all those marketing roles within sustainable organisations?

Jessica Folkerts: That’s a great question. I would say, if sustainability is something that you’re working toward or driving toward or even just slightly interested in, then you’re on the right track, because it’s the way forward. Sustainability is absolutely the way forward to a circular economy in the future and you are getting in at the right time. So, well done on timing.

I actually looked at the phrase “circular economy” on Google search trends the other day and it has been drastically increasing since 2013. You can see the start of an upward trend. So, absolutely this is the perfect time to get in now, because it’s not going to go. As we were just saying, after this period of the coronavirus, all signs are pointing to people, not just consumers, but businesses in general, being more interested in this. With the climate crisis on top of this, it’s here, it’s now, it’s happening. Now is the time to make the difference.

Consumers are going to be demanding it. Businesses want further innovation that is more environmentally friendly and a reduction in costs, and they all can come together. It’s not mutually exclusive. One benefits the other, so absolutely the timing is perfect. I would say, if you are in an organization that is already in the world of sustainability, great, just continue to do what you’re doing; focus on the story. I think one of the biggest parts is to focus on the story, because that will help gain awareness for what you’re doing and will help gain buy-in from your stakeholders.

Avoid greenwashing. I would say, absolutely avoid greenwashing. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but in the end, the truth will fall out; it will come out. Maybe not right away, but eventually the real truth will come out and so it’s just not worth it in the long run. It needs to be an authentic, transparent story. That’s what consumers are asking for and demanding anyway, and they’re quite savvy these days. So, it’s just not worth it. Avoid it at all costs. I would say focus on your true, authentic story.

If you are in an organisation that is not yet on the sustainability bandwagon or is maybe slightly interested in it, again, focus on buy-in from your stakeholders. Focus on your story, little by little. Something we fully believe at bio-bean, is that all it takes really is a shift in behavioral mindset. Once that shift takes place, the rest falls from that. And yes, it can take time and yes, it can seem arduous, but actually the behavioral mindset is the biggest step. When that is done, it will all fall out of that change.

Even if you need a simple, concrete step to start with, then coffee is a really good place to start. It is actually really easy. It’s a clean segregated material right from the source, you’re knocking it out of the handle or you are just dumping it out of your filter or whatever it is. It’s segregated right away. So, pick it up in a bag, talk to your waste management company, get them to send it to us. It’s quite an easy step.

What’s Next for bio-bean?

Mitchel White: Nice plug there, as well. Reaching that point then, there is a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. So, what’s next for you guys?

Jessica Folkerts: Well for us, I’ve kind of been saying it already in this chat, COVID has come at the least worst time for bio-bean, if that makes sense. We are incredibly lucky, over many businesses, that the timing of this has not been so bad for us. Coffee Log is our main revenue generator and Coffee Logs are our winter fuel. Coronavirus happened at the tail end of our sales season, and so we’re pretty well positioned in that sense. Coming out of COVID, again, we’ve been talking about this trend toward more sustainable, ethical brands and this trend towards staying home more often. So, Coffee Log is actually well positioned to grow quite dramatically. We have high, ambitious targets this year for sales growth for Coffee Logs.

And when it comes to our natural flavor product for the food and beverage industry, we’re getting great traction from the likes of international flavor and fragrance houses to alcohol distilleries wanting to make, for example, coffee flavored vodkas. We have a lot of excitement happening around that particular product as well.

We have other innovations in the pipeline, of course. We have a technology team who are constantly working on what else we can do with these coffee grounds. What else is in these coffee grounds that is of value that we can and make use of. Then of course, the dry grounds are a huge, exciting piece of what we’re doing now. There’s a lot of focus shifting for offering dry, recycled grounds as a raw bulk material for other product innovations. If we can turn trays into objects that aren’t just made of plastic, maybe they’re partially made with coffee grounds. There’s a great displacement for traditional plastics and we’re making use of this material that would otherwise have been considered waste. So, there’s a lot of exciting things happening at bio-bean.

We’re also looking into European expansion. We want to take our business model that’s working in the UK really well and expand it into Northern Europe specifically for now, just to further our impact. People are drinking coffee around the world, not just the UK. There’s a lot of coffee being drunk and that coffee, when it gets sent to landfill, actually sits there emitting methane and we all know methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas and a major contributor to climate change. By diverting coffee grounds from landfill and instead recycling them, we actually save 80% on carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. There are huge savings to be made and we want to take that impact further than just the UK.

Leaders in Sustainable Business

Mitchel White: I don’t know if you read, but are there any good book recommendations that you’ve got?

Jessica Folkerts: I try to be a reader. I’m one of those readers who reads about two sentences and then falls asleep with the book on my face. I’m a big fan of Brené Brown – she’s brilliant and she calls herself a social researcher. Right now, I’m reading her book called “Dare to Lead” and I think that she’s brilliant. She talks about daring and courageous, transparent, vulnerable leadership and how that can actually bring out the best in you, the best in your team, and the best in the people that you interact with.

I think that applies to business as well. At bio-bean, we’re trying to be leaders in this world of sustainable business and we’re lucky in that sustainability is built into the very fabric of what we do. We believe fully that real impact has to happen at scale, but that businesses need to be leading in this effort to combat climate change, because if businesses lead through it then others will follow. They have to and the consumers are demanding it anyway, as I said before. For a real, sustainable shift to happen, we believe that businesses have to lead doing that and I think that requires daring, courageous, transparent, vulnerable leadership. I think that Brené Brown’s work doesn’t only apply to individuals, it applies to organisations at scale. I highly recommend her work.

Mitchel White: I’ve heard of her book and I’ve read a bit of her work, so I think I’m going to add that to my reading list. Last question from me; where can we find out more about you and bio-bean?

Jessica Folkerts: For bio-bean, our website is You can find Coffee Logs on Instagram @Coffee_Logs, somebody got the full Coffee Logs before we could, unfortunately. Twitter is @biobean, and then you can find us on LinkedIn, again, if you just search for bio-bean and you’ll find me there.

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