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Capsules, pods, and pads, oh my! How to recycle your coffee pods & accessories
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Capsules, pods, and pads, oh my! How to recycle your coffee pods & accessories

How to reduce your coffee-related waste

Are single-use coffee pods sentencing you to sustainability purgatory?

Coffee pods may not be as bad for the environment as you think. Sure, single-use pods create a lot of waste. But studies comparing the overall impact of various coffee-brewing methods have been inconclusive.

While scientists and activists have noted the massive number of pods going into landfills, researchers have also found that some traditional brewing methods — such as filtered drip coffee and espresso machines — use significantly higher amounts of energy than capsule machines. Even worse, drip coffee makers tend to waste both water and grounds, since it’s easy to accidentally make more than you can drink.

So while single-use pods aren’t exactly the best for the environment, the jury’s still out on whether they’re really any worse than traditionally brewed coffee… if you’re disposing of them correctly. Some pods are more “recyclable” than others, and various brands have their own recycling programs and tools to make recycling easier.

Zero Waste Coffee

You CAN go waste-free with coffee. The “king” of zero waste coffee is using a French press, aeropresses or moka pot without filters. Simply pour in hot water and grounds, wait for it to brew, and press. You can use reusable filters (or none, depending on the model), and the only energy you’ll expend is the amount needed to boil the water.

You can also use the pour-over method for coffee, either with compostable or reusable cotton filters.  

Or, you can buy instant coffee in a glass or metal jar. Plus, When you drink a cup of instant coffee, you rarely make more than you need — and you won’t need to throw away any coffee grinds.

Recycling and composting coffee pods

We wouldn’t recommend switching to, but if you’re in love with your convenient capsules, here’s how it’s possible to lessen your environmental impact.

Keurig

Keurig, which originally invented the coffee pod, has been a massive contributor to coffee pod waste over the years. Each year, billions of K-cups are manufactured, and most of them will end up in landfills.

Fortunately, as of this year, the company has finally transitioned to using recyclable #5 plastic instead of the non-recyclable #7 plastic in all of their pods.

However, it’s not as simple. To properly recycle a K-cup, let it cool then peel off the lid and dump the grounds (which can be composted!). You can also buy a special tool that helps you remove the lid, such as this one from Recycle A Cup.

The remaining plastic portion can be tossed in your recycling bin – in theory. However, they won’t likely end up recycled at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) since the pods are too small.

Private recyclers like Preserve collect #5 plastic, but always check for program status. Preserve’s Gimme 5’s program is currently on hold due to COVID-19.

Nespresso

Nespresso pods are recyclable, but you can’t just toss them in your home recycling bin — you’ll need to make sure they make it to the company’s own special recycling centers. Unlike the K-cups, these pods are made of aluminum which is coated in silicone to prevent spoilage. To recycle the pods, take them into a Nespresso-certified collection center (Williams Sonoma collects pods) or mail them in a recycling bag, which you can order from their website. After processing, Nespresso turns the aluminum into items such as pens, bicycles, and car engines.

Illy

Illy’s Iperespresso capsules can be recycled through their mail-in recycling program, though it will come at a cost. For $15, Illy will ship you a recycling bag to place all your used pods into. The company will recycle everything — the pod, the leftover grounds, and even the bag you mailed them in — so you don’t have to separate any materials yourself.

Starbucks Verismo

Like Keurig pods, Starbucks Verismo pods are made of #5 plastic and apply to the same rules as Keurig. You’ll need to peel the lid and empty the contents first. In addition to the grounds, Verismo filters are not recyclable, so you’ll need to remove them as well.

Senseo coffee pads

Instead of plastic or aluminum, Senseo pads are made of compostable paper. While they don’t keep as long, Senseo pads are a great option if you have a compost bin — just throw in the whole pad.

Other pod recycling options

If you’re trying to recycle a pod that’s not on this list, or you’d prefer to recycle them all in one go, Terracycle may be able to help. You can order a box, fill it with any brand of plastic or aluminum coffee pods (the small box fits up to 450 pods!), and send it back to Terracycle. While their boxes are pricey, they make recycling your pods easy and convenient.

Be careful with companies that claim to sell a compostable or biodegradable plastic pod. While they may be technically correct, many neglect to mention that the material their pods are made from can only be composted at a specialized industrial facility — one of which you probably can’t easily get your pods to. Before buying pods that claim to be compostable, check the packaging or their website to ensure that you can compost them at home.

Alternatives to single-use coffee pods

If you want to upgrade to a more environmentally friendly brew, consider an option that saves energy and lowers the amount of material you’ll be using.

If you have a machine that takes pods or capsules already, try reusable, refillable pods. You can find refillable pods that fit into most popular machines. With a recyclable pod, you won’t have to worry about throwing away any lids or filters, and you never have to worry about the hassle of separating components or shipping your recyclables.

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay.


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Sophie Brous
Sophie Brous is an editorial intern at Green Philly. Born and raised in NYC, she now attends Haverford College, where she majors in linguistics. When she's not writing, she can be found exploring cities, making arts and crafts, and finding ways to live a greener lifestyle. View all posts by Sophie Brous

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