How did this Seattle coffee shop manage to almost eliminate its entire share of waste every month?

It all started when Jacob Huskey, an (aptly named) University of Washington student and a barista at Seven Coffee Roasters Market & Cafe, realized he needed just a few more credits to secure his environmental studies degree. So last summer, he proposed an independent study to his boss at Seven: a short-term waste-reduction project. Little did he know it would completely transform his life and career.

The bold goal was for Seven, a 20-seat café and market in Ravenna, to become Seattle’s first zero-waste café — at no extra cost.

Jacob Huskey, sustainability and marketing specialist at Seven Coffee Roasters, shows off the amount of trash they produced in a week in January. Everything else was recycled. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Jacob Huskey, sustainability and marketing specialist at Seven Coffee Roasters, shows off the amount of trash they produced in a week in January. Everything else was recycled. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Six months into the experiment, it looks like that goal is in sight.

“We’ve been able to reach 95% diversion and save money doing it,” Huskey says. That’s 5% or less worth of waste that is going to landfills.

The hip café — clinging to the uphill side of twisty Northeast Ravenna Boulevard — has been operating since 2012, but the building it’s housed in has been a grocery store since at least 1922, when its customers were loggers bringing timber down to Lake Washington. Claiming “unofficially” to be the longest-operating grocery store in Seattle, it perches a above Ravenna Park, about a block away.

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Seven is tucked into the bottom floor of a shingled craftsman-style building chicly cloaked in black with bold, white lettering. Red bistro furniture sets migrate outside during sun breaks to beckon people in for a snack, coffee or even one of the craft beers on tap. Market offerings include food, gifts, cards and of course, ecofriendly plastic alternatives like beeswax food wraps.

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Huskey, 25, has a wide, ready smile and is full of enthusiasm as he conducts the ecotour. He gets wistful over lost recycling opportunities and fired up over time-saving tweaks.

“I think the primary point of the program is to dispel the misconception that sustainability has to come at a higher cost or more work,” he says. “I feel very passionately that with a little creative collaboration, these problems are easier to solve than we think.”

“When Jacob first proposed his school project, I believed it was totally impossible,” says Seven manager Seri Thompson. “But by doing one little change at a time, we’ve gotten there.

“It’s easy to forget the environment amid the hustle and bustle. I’m really proud of our team and grateful for the work Jacob has done here,” Thompson says.

Much like being certified as organic, being certified as “zero-waste” through a private agency is expensive, so instead of paying a prohibitive fee to get certified, Seven opted to just adhere to the guidelines prescribed by the Zero Waste International Alliance (which typically charges $1,200 for certification). Certifying agencies typically ask for 90% diversion from landfills; Seven has been higher than 95% for the last 11 weeks — and at 98.3% for the last three, as of this report.

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The café’s landfill waste (marked “the last resort” on the trash can) is mostly candy wrappers, bottle caps and chip bags. The store tried eliminating the final percentage points by making “Eco-Bricks” — hand-stuffing waste into a 2-liter soda bottle to be used as building ballast for concrete, but it took too much time.

Garbage collection has been the biggest cost-saver, Huskey says. The café went from using a 96-gallon bin collected every two weeks to a 32-gallon picked up once a month. The bill went from $56/month to $12.50/month, which comes out to a little more than $500 a year.

So how did they do it?

  • Switched to compostable to-go items, saving money by consolidating purchases.
  • Created a greener condiment bar using dispensers (a barista noticed she was always throwing away half-packets of sugar) and reusable metal stirrers (who keeps those things?).
  • Built a zero-confusion waste station by the door that is color-coded, diagrammed with pictures of items Seven carries, and has cutouts only large enough for the biggest thing in each category. “Landfill” is a vertical slot the size of a folder. (Yes, the staff goes through the trash to re-sort as needed.)
  • Offered more bulk coffee options to reduce use of foil coffee bags.
  • Asked café vendors like Macrina Bakery to deliver items in reusable bulk bins versus disposable packages, and requested that Seven’s roastery does the same with coffee — saving time and labor.
  • Eliminated cling wrap, Ziploc bags and plastic gloves (they use tongs and wax paper as much as possible, then supplement with pricey compostable gloves if needed).
  • Began recycling film plastics and bags — separated, washed, hung-dried and delivered to QFC or Safeway for reuse.
  • Added and reorganized waste bins behind the bar to make recycling easier and more efficient.
  • Started charging 10 cents for paper cups, asking customers “Would you like that in a disposable cup?,” selling reusable “Seven” logo ceramic mugs at cost and offering a “Little Mug Library” of reusable cups. Customers return borrowed ones to the busing station for washing on their next trip. (Only a few have gone missing.)

“It’s been surprisingly well-received since we started charging for paper cups. Many people have said ‘I’m so glad you are doing this,’” Huskey says.

As of the end of February, thanks in large part to the charge on cups and the addition of the Little Mug Library, Seven has served 1,778 of their 3,610 drinks (49.25%) in reusable cups. They’re hoping to break 50% soon.

Seven Coffee Roasters Market & Cafe sells reusable cups at cost, along with paper cups for 10 cents. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Seven Coffee Roasters Market & Cafe sells reusable cups at cost, along with paper cups for 10 cents. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“Every cent we collect on paper cups goes to environmental initiatives for the shop and/or community. We are soliciting ideas about what people are interested in,” Huskey says.

Seven has raised $183.20 for the environmental fund so far.

Logical next steps for the café, Huskey says, would be to focus on energy efficiency with an energy-saving ice machine, or looking at the long term, overhauling the building insulation.

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“We are thrilled they are taking a leadership role,” says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a nonprofit lobbying group. “This café seems to be doing exactly what we would like to see other Seattle cafés do,” Trim says.

The food-service industry is ripe for overhaul, says Trim. “Seventeen percent of what goes to landfill in Washington is food waste — about half edible, half inedible food, so we really need to address food waste.”

At the Little Mug Library at Seven Coffee Roasters Market and Cafe, patrons can barrow a cleaned, donated mug and skip the 10-cent charge for a paper cup. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
At the Little Mug Library at Seven Coffee Roasters Market and Cafe, patrons can barrow a cleaned, donated mug and skip the 10-cent charge for a paper cup. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The key to Seven’s success is convenience says Nico Onoda-McGuire, program manager for sustainability and circular economy at Seattle Good Business Network, which runs Seattle Made, a local business-resource program that helped Seven get recognized in the EnviroStars program.

“Their model is very robust in that it allows their customers to see the impact they are making and allows them to participate with little to no inconvenience on their part, which is often a barrier to participating,” Onoda-McGuire said.

In September, Huskey was promoted to become Seven’s marketing and sustainability specialist. This month, he is moving to Chicago — where real estate is cheaper — to become an independent consultant, but hopes to work with more Seattle businesses. (He’ll likely still do some consulting for Seven, too.)

Huskey is trying to create a blueprint that other cafés can use, and he wants to build a network of reusable mugs like companies like Lime built for bicycles.

“What we applied to our systems at Seven seemed so attainable and so affordable,” he says, “I’m compelled to share it with other small businesses and create a greater zero-waste, zero-cost movement.”

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Seven Coffee Roasters Cafe & Market: 2007 N.E. Ravenna Blvd., Seattle; 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily; 206-517-5572; sevencoffeeroasters.com