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A cup of coffee can be not only consumed, but also used for compost, printing, or even worn as clothing. Coffee is the latest buzz in eco-fashion, with a Taiwanese company at the forefront.

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Good to the Last Thread

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 429 )

The definition of "coffee lover" has a new twist.

Wang Jing-chan, a 22 year-old designer at Duck Image in Taichung, has been an avid coffee drinker since college, accustomed to brewing her own java each day. But recently her relationship with coffee has changed significantly. She not only drinks it, but also carries it as an accessory.

Putting her creative powers as a designer to work, she gets bags of free coffee dregs from clerks at nearby Starbucks and 85o C shops. She then lets the grounds dry, scoops out two teaspoons, and sews them into little pouches the size of a business card holder. "I use them to remove the bad smell from the coins and bank notes in my wallet. It's environmentally friendly," she relates. She places another pouch of coffee grounds in the handbag she takes to work with her.

Coffee redefined goes beyond enjoying it as a beverage to encompass using the leftover grounds for other applications. New approaches to getting the most out of coffee are quietly spreading around Taiwan.

Piping Hot Internet Topic

The Taiwan-based on-line discussion forum Mobile01 features such hot threads as "Where Can I Find Free Coffee Dregs?" and "What Properties Do Coffee Grounds Have?" On the Yahoo Answers (Chinese language) site, Netizens offer a list of Helpful Hints for Coffee Grounds. From basic placement in the refrigerator to remove odors, making a needle and thread set, using the oils contained in the dregs to retard rust, or as environmentally friendly fertilizer in planters, the discussion forum is brimming with ingenious ideas.

"Now that the concentration of coffee shops has reached a certain level and coffee culture has taken hold, with environmentalism picking up in recent years as well, coffee dregs have become a creative element as a natural substance," offers Ms. Wen Lin, brand communication leader for President Starbucks Coffee Corporation (the joint venture between Starbucks and Taiwan's President Group which operates the coffee shop chain across the island).

Over four years ago in Starbucks's home city of Seattle, the company introduced a garden composting program, offering free coffee grounds to customers at outlets around the city. As the nitrogen contained in coffee grounds is an important nutrient for plants, many Seattle residents took advantage of the free offer to fertilize their gardens.

Starbucks estimates coffee grounds contribute 40 percent of the more than one thousand tons of waste produced in its stores daily. Since instituting the free coffee grounds recycling program, Starbucks has reduced waste by 40 percent and contributed to the vigor of countless customers' gardens.

Now this trend has percolated over to Taiwan, where coffee shops are nearly omnipresent. And people are finding increasingly creative ways to make use of coffee grounds.

At the Starbucks outlet in Taipei's Ximending district, the fourth-floor exhibition of creative works using coffee grounds includes such items as natural kindling using the oil from coffee, coffee crayons, air fresheners, and coffee-scented bandages – all conceived and produced by young designers.

Two T-shirts from One Cup of Coffee

People are even finding ways to turn dregs into dollars.

Recently a graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University encountered a fellow climber on Snow Mountain wearing a jacket with technical fiber made from coffee grounds.

The creative inspiration for wearing coffee on one's body comes from Singtex Industrial Co., a maker of functional materials that came up with the world's first patented coffee garment.

"One cup of Starbucks coffee is enough to make two T-shirts," relates Jason Chen, Singtex general manager. Upon witnessing a clerk at a Starbucks near the Taipei Arena on Nanjing East Road place coffee grounds in an ashtray to absorb cigarette odor and moisture, Chen was struck with the inspiration that coffee could be used in clothing materials.

Chen spent more than NT$30 million over a four-year period working to resolve the issue of mildew, caused by bacteria resulting from the starches produced by the polysaccharides contained in coffee grounds. Chen applied production techniques to make nanoparticles with properties that resist odor, moisture and bacteria, which he dubbed "S.Cafe."

Jason Chen risked throwing so much money around for the simple reason that environmentally friendly, healthful products are gaining currency around the world. Last year, while major brands like Nike and Puma experienced negative growth, environmentally friendly, health-promoting products bucked the trend with growth of around 20 percent.

"Charcoal also has anti-bacterial properties, but it has to be heated to between 800 and 1000 degrees. Coffee grounds don’t have to spend extra energy to take on the odor-control ability. Also, coffee grounds are porous and highly absorbent, so you don't need additional chemical treatments. The material absorbs moisture and captures odors naturally," relates Wang Wei-kuo of Uranus International, Ltd., the Taiwan importer of France's best-selling Eider Action Wear brand of outdoor apparel.

Eider was the world's first brand to use Singtex's S.Cafe fabric. This summer Wang Wei-kuo's company ran out of inventory soon after introducing polo shirts made with the new material. Wang is now thinking of introducing S.Cafe socks to combat foot odor.

Eider is not alone. Surrounded by premium global brands at an outdoor apparel exhibition in Germany in late July, Jason Chen introduced the world's first coffee clothing. The natural, eco-friendly and healthful concept captured orders from 25 brands around the world. "This year sales of S.Cafe products could reach one hundred million (NT) dollars," relates Chen. With Singtex sales of just over NT$600 million, Jason Chen is especially bullish about his new invention.

Scrambling for the Dregs

Coffee isn't only worn on the body. In Korea, designers have used coffee grounds to devise an eco-friendly printer cartridge that prints with coffee-colored ink. In America, artists have made watercolors from coffee dregs. You can even buy large coffee briquettes, which are cheaper than charcoal, and burn faster. Coffee grounds are being incorporated into life in ever more diverse and creative ways.

Starbucks, the pioneer of putting coffee dregs to practical use, has put designers to work developing creative coffee-dreg products. And they take a sanguine view of the commercial possibilities. Wen Lin admits that Starbucks is working behind the scenes looking into ways to commodify creative products made with coffee grounds. "We're focusing our development on things like stationary and coffee mugs."

A month or two ago President Starbucks quietly sought the cooperation of agricultural research institutions to find ways to develop coffee-ground fertilizer to enhance the sweetness and juiciness of fruits and vegetables. Toward this end they have engaged organic and natural farmers to conduct small-scale trial cultivation for possible future introduction.

"DIY can be entirely hand-made, but if you want to develop a product, you have to give thought to modularity and practicality. Ultimately, further evaluation is needed before we know if it's feasible," relates Wen Lin.

Whether or not dregs become a new goldmine, coffee has transcended its original state to penetrate people's lives in many new ways.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman


 S.Cafe, Made in Taiwan

Wearing coffee doesn't mean pouring it over your body.

This is the message circulating in media around the world, as news gets out about the world's first apparel made with coffee, using Singtex's S.Cafe fabric.

Singtex, winner of a Most Amazing Invention award from TIME magazine for its technical coconut fabric, is one of the highest holders of patents among Taiwan's textiles companies, developing an average of three new fabrics daily. Among the 600 fabrics developed over the course of a year, over 20 percent find continued application. "Their R&D capacity is phenomenal," Taiwan External Trade Development Council deputy secretary-general Yeh Ming-shui has effused.

Growing up in the countryside, Jason Chen noticed how rice husks could be burned in a stove in place of wood. This kindled his lifelong interest in deriving fabric from natural cooking materials. "When burned, coconut shells and coffee grounds have the same effects as charcoal. This is where I'm focusing my research, along with tea leaves and other readily available materials," relates Chen.

As eco-friendly fabrics are attracting increasing attention in Europe and North America, fabric made from waste coffee grounds hits the spot with major European and American brands for its natural and recycled properties. This contributed to making Singtex the darling of the recent outdoor equipment showcase in Germany, the largest of its kind in the world.

Uranus International general manager, Wang Wei-kuo, recalls the way Gore-Tex took the world by storm for its superior waterproof properties, to the extent that if apparel companies did not employ Gore-Tex they weren't even in the game among major brands. "Today, S.Cafe has that kind of potential, and Taiwan is the first to obtain the patents," he says.

Wang believes that now the time is ripe for product diversification and broader applications. "For instance, you could have Blue Mountain coffee or iced coffee S.Cafe to categorize and segment the products and help boost their impact."

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好友人數