Billions of coffee lovers enjoy a steaming cup of coffee every single day. Their coffee beans and grounds come in different types of packaging. We have bags, metal tins, glass jars, and plastic coffee packaging. If your favorite coffee brand comes in a bag, you might find recycling it a little more challenging than other types of packaging. Can you recycle coffee bags at all? This article explores the possibility and options for recycling coffee bags.
Yes, coffee bags are recyclable. But recycling solutions for some types of coffee bags are more far-fetched than others. However, let's make it known that you can hardly ever recycle most coffee bags through your curbside recycling bin. That's because they make most coffee bags with a combination of foil, plastic, and paper on multiple layers. We call this composite packaging.
That means that the materials have first to be separated from one another before recycling, which requires special equipment that your local council recycling center will most likely not have. If you put old coffee bags into the curbside bin, they will most probably end up in the landfill.
Adding used coffee bags that your local recycling council can not recycle is problematic. The non-recyclable coffee bags contaminate the waste pile and make sorting difficult. Sometimes these items cause severe damage to equipment and interrupt work. So most recycling facilities will just send all the contents of your contaminated recycling bin to the landfill even though there are perfectly recyclable items in there.
Related: You might also be interested in reading up on options for zero-waste coffee filters and strainers, and seeing as you’re here, the environmental impact of coffee covers the end-end footprint from bean to cup.
As we mentioned before, the "how" of recycling coffee bags depends on the materials they use in making them. Different materials mean different recycling processes. We look at the different types of coffee bags, their materials, and if they are recyclable or only fit for reuse.
Multi-layered coffee bags are the most common type of coffee bag construction. The bags usually have an outermost layer of paper followed by aluminum foil and an innermost layer of plastic. Some composite coffee bags just have paper-plastic layers.
Most coffee brands quote flavor and aroma retention as the reason behind foil-lined coffee bags. The layering of those materials is intended to keep the coffee fresh and protected from humidity. Unfortunately, this type of coffee bag is not curbside recyclable, even if it's just a little bit of foil lining, because it is not possible to separate the materials and recycle them separately.
So, are composite coffee bags recyclable? Yes, you may be able to recycle aluminum foil and plastic composite coffee bags through special recycling programs. Some coffee brands also have recycling programs set up, so check if your favorite brand has one too. You can always try TerraCycle or reuse the coffee bag for a DIY project if it doesn't.
Omnidegradable is a term coined by Tekpak Solutions for its sustainable packaging. They use an outer base of paper and a plastic inner layer to make the material. However, they combine the plastic with an organic additive that makes it biodegradable.
The material will decompose when microbes act on it and break down into organic matter. To recycle Omnidegradable coffee bags, you can send them to an industrial compost facility. All parts of the bags are biodegradable, including the zip lock and valve, which aren't ordinarily recyclable in most coffee bags.
The packaging manufacturers insist that an omnidegradable coffee bag won't contribute to plastic waste or microplastic pollution. Some of the coffee brands that use omnidegradable bags include Django Coffee Co and Seven Coffee Roasters.
Since a composite coffee bag is so difficult to recycle, some brands have come up with a one-material coffee bag. They make the bag using low-density polyethylene, which we also know as soft plastics. Some of the coffee brands that use LDPE bags include Presto, CRU Kafe, and Eco Barista. You can check if your favorite coffee brand does too.
Other common LDPE plastics products include produce bags, shrink wrap and squeeze bottles. LDPE coffee bags are fully recyclable through the soft plastics recycling stream. They recycle them into flooring, furniture, trash bins, and garbage liners.
Some local recycling authorities do not recycle LDPE products, so you should confirm that yours does before putting it out for recycling. If the local recycling council doesn't offer soft plastic recycling, check with your local supermarket. Lots of supermarkets have recycling programs for soft plastics.
Some coffee brands use Kraft paper and rice paper. They make Kraft with wood pulp, and rice paper is made with materials like bamboo and Qintan tree bark. Rice paper, like rice, is easily compostable; you can put it in your backyard compost bin.
A biodegradable paper coffee bag must be wax free and not have an inner plastic coating (those are composites). It shouldn't also contain strengthening chemicals that can prevent biodegradation. So be careful to avoid brands that have sneaky and unproven claims of eco-friendly paper coffee bags. Look out for brands with third-party certified compostable paper packaging.
Both types of paper bags are biodegradable and compostable, but Kraft paper packaging can also be recycled into new products or feedstock. One challenge with recycling paper is contamination from oil, grease, or food waste. You'll need to clean off residual crumbs of coffee beans before you dispose of the paper coffee bag in a recycling bin. Also, remember that you have to cut out the degassing valves and other plastic elements and dispose of them separately.
Polylactic acid (PLA) is a type of bioplastic. They make PLA coffee bags using carbohydrates from renewable resources like cornstarch, maize, and sugarcane. The finished product looks and performs just like petroleum-based plastic. But bioplastics consume 65% less energy than regular plastic.
Because of its high tensile strength and eco-friendly qualities, many specialty coffee roasters use PLA packaging. The material is biodegradable and will decompose in about 90 days in an industrial compost facility. Because the material requires special composting conditions, home composting is not advised.
PLA bags can also be recycled but not alongside other plastics as it has a lower melting point. It belongs to the "Type 7” group of plastics, and most community recycling centers do not accept it.
TerraCycle accepts all kinds and all brands of coffee bags. If you can't compost empty coffee bags at home and your municipal recycling centers don't accept your kind of coffee bags. Try TerraCycle, it usually costs money for shipping, but they have a range of free coffee bag recycling programs.
Some of those free programs are:
Australian coffee producer, Seven Miles sponsors this program. It recycles all types and brands of coffee bags.
The Dunkin program recycles only its branded coffee bags. So if you buy Dunkin coffee, you can recycle the empty coffee bags for free.
This is another exclusive coffee packaging recycling program. It accepts only Don Francisco’s coffee bags and coffee pods in addition to Café La Llave pods.
If you do not qualify for any free recycling programs, you can still send your coffee bags to TerraCycle directly. When you recycle, you earn money points that you can donate to any school or charity you like.
About 63% of American adults drink coffee daily, and not everyone can access recycling options. If you don't have access to coffee bag recycling facilities, you can still explore other eco-friendly end-of-use options. You can reuse your empty coffee bags for several DIY projects instead of dumping them in the trash can.
Just pierce a few tiny holes at the bottom of your discarded coffee bags and fill them with soil. You have a zero-cost planter for small plants like succulents.
Take advantage of the waterproof attribute of coffee bags and use them to wrap small gifts. Don't throw them in the trash just yet, and they make great book covers too.
You can simply reuse empty coffee bags to store other things. They can also be useful as lunch bags.
There are a lot of accessories you can do with coffee bags if you enjoy craft projects. You can make bangles, handbags, tote bags, and shopping bags with enough coffee bags.
It is possible to recycle coffee bags, but the solutions are not mainstream. So you should consider buying coffee beans in bulk from the bulk bins at the grocery store. You can also reuse your old container instead of taking a new one all the time. That way, you can reduce packaging waste, reduce your carbon dioxide footprint and protect the environment.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.