According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO) over 3 million tonnes of coffee was consumed in Europe in 2015/16. However, recycling and composting of spent grounds has yet to go mainstream, so nearly 500,000 tonnes ends up in UK landfill every year – and this is not the end of the journey by any means. Residual compounds in the spent coffee grounds accumulate in landfill and have been shown to pose a health risk to both humans and aquatic organisms. In addition, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emitted as the grounds breakdown.
With food waste an increasingly pressing issue, innovative techniques to deal with ubiquitous waste products are being developed. Yet, despite all the coffeehouses and coffee drunk in the UK, the issue of spent coffee grounds, has remained largely untouched.
There have been moves to utilise the grounds, with a handful of companies converting them into biofuels, fertilizers, vermicompost and even furniture. This process of adding value to a waste product is an important first step in altering our perspective on what we label ‘waste’. Viewed through a permaculture lens, spent coffee grounds are a by-product and valuable resource that has yet to fulfil a function; if they are permitted to escape the system as an unused output, they would be, more aptly, a ‘pollutant’. Instead, the coffee bean’s linear journey from seedling to landfill via the café, is diverted back into the community, closing the loop.
Fungusloci, based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, is a mushroom micro-farm growing gourmet oyster mushrooms on spent coffee grounds collected from local independent cafés. It’s not surprising that its creator, Dominic Thomas, is familiar with permaculture and indeed founded the urban micro-farm on such principles. Fungusloci diverts over a tonne of spent coffee grounds from landfill every two months. The mushrooms are then sold back to the local community through stalls and restaurants, or via the local food hub, Stroudco.org.uk, set up as part of the Transition Stroud movement.
Fungusloci also seeks to promote the wonderful world of fungi through educational sessions at schools, holding food-culturing workshops and putting on foraging walks.
I sat down with Dominic Thomas to delve further into the mind behind Fungusloci.
Why mushrooms? What sparked your interest in fungi in the first place?
I got into foraging 20 years ago. I have had an interest in food and cooking since I was a student and the idea that you could find high-prized ingredients in the wild for free, was the thing that got me started. I have also always had a love of nature and being out and about in it, so foraging was the perfect pursuit. Foraging wild mushrooms led to the idea of cultivating them, and a fascination that became something of an obsession.
Fungusloci is more than two years down the line – what would you say have been your biggest challenges so far? Are you closer to creating a sustainable urban farming model?
The biggest challenge is trying to make a living as a small-scale producer without loads of capital. Even before I started this, I was aware that making any money growing food in this country was nearly impossible unless you are a large capital-intensive landowner.
Beyond that, the challenge of being a self-taught cultivator has been a steep learning curve. After a couple of years [running the business], I think I am closer to creating a sustainable model – but not there yet. Experience and a background in permaculture has taught me that to succeed in small-scale production, diversity of outputs and minimising inputs is key.
A few people have asked how do you scale up a model like this? But I argue that scalability is not the point. The question I have been seeking to answer is not how big can this get, but how small can you keep it and make it work? The model is then replicable, not scaleable. Every small town should have its own coffee-recycling mushroom-growing unit.
Fungusloci has an outreach element introducing students to the world of fungi. Why do you believe this to be important?
The world of fungi, I have come to learn, is so vast and fascinating. The study of the fifth kingdom, as it is known, is a branch of the natural sciences that is still developing on a daily basis. There is so much that is still not understood – the fact that some of the worlds most valuable food commodities such as truffles, porcine and matsutake mushrooms can still not be artificially cultivated is, I think, a wonderful thing. And yet fungi in many forms are also embedded in our history and culture…But in our somewhat mycophobic society, we hardly ever consider fungi, except as the small white tasteless buttons or dangerous things to be avoided. New research into the health benefits of culinary mushrooms and the creation of new sustainable processes and products – like packaging grown from mycelium – are opening up whole new areas in science, health, food and manufacturing. I don’t profess to be a mycological expert but opening up the wonderful world of fungi to a new generation is definitely part of the mission.
What’s in store for the future of Fungusloci? Are there any experiments you’re particularly excited about?
We’re looking at cultivating some different fungi species and researching some of the medicinal mushrooms. But I’m most excited about developing the project as a collective enterprise. Bringing in more people with different ideas and diversifying with a range of different produce and processes – hopefully building it up as a sustainable community food hub.
What do you most enjoy foraging for? Do you feel mushrooms can act as indicators for the changing environment?
Where I live is actually not the most fantastic location for its range and quantity of edibles. But I do get excited about morels in the spring. I also find that with foraging, it is often as much about what you don’t find, as it is the excitement of bringing home the prize.
As indicators of environmental change, I think fungi can probably tell us a lot. I think it is generally agreed that mushroom seasons are extending as winters get warmer. Two mushrooms that do produce quite regularly in the fields and meadows round here are the Saint George’s (Calocybe gambosa) and the Field Blewit (Lepista saeva). The Saint George’s comes out in the spring – traditionally around St. George’s Day on 23 April and the Blewit is known as a late Autumn mushroom usually appearing in October or November. Over several years I have noted the extending seasons of both these mushrooms – St. George’s often appearing at the beginning of March and Blewits lasting longer and longer into the autumn and winter. There’s a particular field I know, where they both grow in large rings to which I regularly return. Two years ago, I picked Blewits on Christmas eve and last year for the first time in my experience I found a Blewit and a solitary George’s both fruiting within feet of each other at the same time in mid January.
You sometimes mention an interest in relating mushrooms to politics. What’s the link here?
Getting to know fungi and related organisms, their habits and life cycles, you cannot help but become more attuned to the amazing interconnectivity of the natural world. And whilst there are parasitic and other fungi that can sometimes seem deleterious to human needs, far more fungal species are proved to be vital for the health and well-being of other species and whole ecosystems.
For a long time, the more often than not wrongly applied, Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest has been used as proof that competitive capitalism is the ‘natural’ way of things. And even though this ‘Social Darwinist’ theory was countered over a hundred years ago by the likes of Peter Kropotkin with his studies on “Mutual Aid’, a ‘competition is all’ political ideology still prevails. Understanding fungi, and in particular the species that form symbiotic relationships, opens up an alternative model with which to think about politics and economics. Here, not only is mutual aid within species the norm but inter-species collaboration is becoming seen as the key to life and survival throughout the natural world. Working with the mind-bogglingly complex and interconnected world of fungi and their relationships with other living things can help give us a better planetary perspective and show how, for all our genius as a species, like the rest of life, we are ultimately dependent upon others.