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Upcycling is creatively adding value to waste so that as a whole, and without being broken down, it can be converted into another product. At Back to the Roots warehouse, coffee grounds are repurposed and used as a medium for mushroom gardening.

Alejandro and Nikhil want to encourage people to think differently about waste. They mix their coffee grounds from Local Peet’s Cafes with mushroom seed to create real social value. Through their initiative, waste is diverted, food security is pursued, donation campaigns gain momentum, jobs are created, and consumers are inspired and educated.

Story Bank: Upcycling with Nikhil Arora

Story Bank: Upcycling with Nikhil Arora

Repurposing waste is somewhat of a taboo in today’s culture. Luckily, creative initiatives all over the globe are demonstrating the versatility of waste and it’s potential to remedy one of the many problems with lifestyles today. How? Upcycling. Nikhil Arora, co-founder of Back to the Roots in Oakland, California, discusses the concept of upcycling, how he grew his company while remaining true to its core principles and the nature of socially conscious companies.

Arora and co-founder Alejandro Velez created the company during their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley based in the belief that business can and should be used for good. After graduating summa cum laude in 2009, they established the farm that now makes grow-your-own mushroom gardens using entirely recycled coffee grounds as the soil.

DG – Interviewer Douglas Gayeton
NA – Interviewee Nikhil Arora

NA: Back to the Roots began as an urban mushroom farm. We figured out a way to grow gourmet mushrooms entirely on recycled coffee grounds. Through that process we fell in love with the idea of reconnecting people to food and making it personal again. We have unique kits that help people experience growing their own food. One is a grow-at-home mushroom kit and the other is the first home aquaponics kit: a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food.

DG: Where do you find the grounds and how does it end up being something people can buy in the store?

NA: We have a supply route, and every morning we collect coffee grounds and filters from the local cafes in the area. We take these grounds back to our warehouse and press the extra moisture out of them.

Once the coffee grounds and filters are dried out, we place them into individual bags that will eventually become our kits. In those bags we mix the mushroom spawn with seed and incubate it for about three weeks. The contents of the bags change from black fluffy coffee grounds into a dense white brick of mushroom roots called mycelium. We take those bags, seal them up, package them and turn them into our grow-at-home mushroom kits. People can buy the kits from places like Whole Foods, Home Depot or online. You get a little box, open it up and within 10 days you get a full crop of gourmet oyster mushrooms.

DG: What is your definition of “upcycling” and why is it important?

NA: “Upcycling” is about creatively adding value to waste so that it can be converted to another product as a whole, without being broken down. “Upcycling” is extremely important because it makes us think about things in an entirely new light. It shows us how there is immense value in our waste. Hopefully this can be enough of an incentive for our generation to start looking at how much value we can extract from each product or resource before it ends up in some landfill.

DG: There are a number of qualities that your company has brought to the creation of a product. One quality is that your mushrooms kits are a form of “waste diversion.” Can you explain what “waste diversion” is?

NA: “Waste diversion” is taking a product, including agricultural products and different materials that were going straight to the landfill, and looking at them with a different lens. Taking a product and adding one more value, one more life cycle to it—that is waste diversion.

We’re now expanding beyond coffee grounds and looking at using rice hulls and waste from rice farms, cotton hulls from cotton farms, and sawdust waste from wood refineries. We are looking at other kinds of agricultural food product waste, saying, “You know what, we can really reuse that.”

DG: Is sustainability something that is actually achievable?

NA: Absolutely. Sustainability is something you have to constantly strive for. It’s unfortunate our current business ecosystem isn’t built around it. Our economy is built on using things once and throwing them away.

Sustainability is recycling, reusing, reducing; we all learned that as kids. Somehow, as we grow up and become business leaders, that knowledge is lost. Sustainability is totally achievable; it’s just a matter of shifting our mindset as a business. You can make money and do well financially but still be good at the same time. We were fortunate to have started out a couple of years ago surrounded by socially conscious companies who are proving sustainability and profit can go hand and hand.