The growing popularity of single-use coffee makers is bad news for the environment: around 56 billion coffee pods end up in landfills around the world every year.
If you love the convenience of your Keurig coffee maker but don’t like the idea of your K-Cups choking up landfill or the oceans for thousands of years, we’re here to tell you how you can recycle these pesky little pods.
What are K-Cups?
K-Cups are little containers of coffee that can be loaded into a Keurig single-cup coffee maker. These machines and their K-Cups offer the ultimate level of convenience: simply load the coffee pod into the machine, press a button, and you have a cup of coffee just how you like it!
Although K-Cups are technically only from the Keurig brand, some people use this as a generic term to refer to all kinds of coffee pods.
Coffee pods from many brands are similar to K-Cups in terms of design and materials. However, some brands such as Nespresso have a different style of coffee pods which are disc-shaped and made entirely of aluminum.
Can K-Cups be recycled?
K-Cups are, generally speaking, recyclable. However, recycling them can be difficult or even virtually impossible to recycle depending on the facilities in your area.
What are K-Cups made of?
One of the things that makes K-Cups difficult to recycle is that they’re composed of a few different materials.
Each K-Cup contains:
- A plastic pod
- An aluminum lid
- A paper filter
- Coffee grounds
The coffee grounds and paper filter are both easily compostable. In fact, coffee grounds are fantastic for gardening because they quickly break down into nitrogen-rich humus that is excellent for a range of plants.
In 2020, Keurig changed the type of plastic they use to make their pods to polypropylene, or Number 5 plastic. This type of plastic is accepted by some municipalities in their curbside recycling programs, though not all.
Finally, the aluminum lid is recyclable and accepted by many recycling programs.
Why K-Cups are difficult to recycle?
So this all sounds like good news, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. K-cups are difficult to recycle for a few reasons.
1. K cups are made of different materials
K-Cups are not made of polypropylene plastic alone. Instead, they also incorporate foil, paper, and coffee grounds.
Although these components are either compostable or recyclable in many municipalities, not all towns accept all of the materials in their curbside recycling bins.
Furthermore, the materials are difficult to separate out.
2. K cups are awkward to disassemble
Just because something is made of different materials doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t recyclable. Think about yogurt tubs, for example, which are mostly plastic but with an aluminum foil lid.
However, the biggest issue with K-Cups is how they are made: these different materials are tightly constructed together, making them difficult to take apart. For recycling centers, it’s far too time-consuming and expensive to take coffee pods apart to recycle their different components.
It’s not so easy for consumers to disassemble K-Cups themselves either: the foil lid is hard to pull off as it doesn’t come with a tab, unlike other items like yogurt tubs.
3. K cups require washing before recycling
The coffee grounds and the paper filters are compostable, but this actually causes an extra headache for recycling centers as the organic material can contaminate the other items in your recycling bin.
It’s important to thoroughly wash the plastic pod and aluminum lid before putting them into your recycling bin. Even if you manage to pull these components apart, not everyone can be bothered to clean them properly for recycling.
One Toronto official said that the city no longer accepts coffee pods because they found 97% of the pods put in recycling bins still contained coffee grounds.
How to recycle K Cups
All of this means that recycling your used K-Cups isn’t as easy as tossing them in your curbside recycling bin. However, it is possible to recycle K-Cups if you know how!
1. Be sure of the type of coffee pod you’re trying to recycle
The first thing you need to know is the type of K-Cup you want to recycle because each company’s pods are different, so the process isn’t the same for each.
The steps outlined here are specifically for Keurig K-Cups, though you can apply or adapt them for other brands. For example, Starbucks Verismo Pods and Nescafe Dolce Gusto Pods are similar in construction to K-Cups and can be recycled in pretty much the same way.
Recycling Nespresso coffee pods is actually a lot easier, as the brand offers a free recycling program. You can either drop them off any Nespresso retailer or UPS drop-off points, and they will be shipped back to the company.
Nespresso then composts the coffee grounds and recycles the aluminum to be used in new products.
2. Check if your town accepts K-Cups (not all do) or their components
If your coffee pods are not made by Nespresso, you still have a few options to recycle them.
A few years ago, Keurig started making their coffee pods from polypropylene as this type of plastic was generally accepted in curbside recycling bins. By the end of 2020, 100% of the brand’s K-Cups were made of this material, along with their other components.
Unfortunately, China has recently refused to accept any more contaminated recycling from countries like the US. In turn, some municipalities stopped accepting this kind of plastic in their curbside recycling programs.
Therefore, it’s essential to check with your local authority to see if they accept this kind of plastic and in what form. Few municipalities accept whole K-Cups, but some will take the plastic pods when separated and washed.
If you have Keurig K-Cups you can be pretty sure they’re made from polypropylene or Number 5 plastic, but if you’re unsure, check the bottom of the pod, as this should show a recycling triangle with a number in the middle, which corresponds to the type of plastic.
Verify this and then ask your town’s sanitation department or recycling center to see if they accept this kind of plastic.
Many also accept the aluminum top, as long as it is clean. Separating these components can be tricky, but there’s a great trick for this, which we’ll look at next!
3. Try Recycle-a-Cup
Recycle-a-cup is a handy little tool that allows you to separate the different components of the K-Cup so that they can be recycled or composted.
Note that this only works with certain brands of coffee pods due to the differences in sizes and thickness of materials, though it is compatible with K-Cups and many other similar brands.
The process works as follows:
Step 1 – Load the coffee pod into the cutter
Take your used coffee pod and make sure that it has cooled completely. Then load it into the Recycle-A-Cup cutter.
Step 2 – Twist the cutter
First press both green buttons on the cutter, and twist while keeping the buttons pressed down. Twist it completely around the pod in a full rotation.
You can either turn the tool or the cup, whatever works best for you.
Step 3 – Remove the pod from the cutter
Release both buttons and then remove the upper part of the pod. The plastic bottom of the cup will come off cleanly, and the lid, filter, and the coffee grounds should be one piece.
Twist and pull the filter to remove it from the aluminum lid. Try to remove it in one piece, but if some parts of the filter remain stuck to the lid, just pull them off with your fingers.
Step 4 – Compost, recycle, or re-purpose
The different components of the K-Cup are now separated so that you can sustainably dispose of them:
- You can compost the coffee grounds and paper filter. For more on composting, check out our posts on the best indoor compost bins and how to compost in an apartment. If you really can’t compost your coffee grounds, you can always put them into your green waste bin.
- You can recycle the aluminum top.
- You can recycle or reuse the plastic pod.
Many municipalities accept separated plastic pods and aluminum tops in their curbside recycling programs but be sure to check with your local program first. And of course, be sure to thoroughly wash the plastic pod and aluminum top before recycling!
If your town doesn’t accept the plastic cups, throwing separated plastic pods into the normal trash is the lesser of two evils because at least the coffee grinds will decompose instead of being trapped inside the plastic pods.
Or better yet, come up with a way to reuse the plastic pods. One great idea is to use them to grow seedlings – they already have a drainage hole built in!
K-Cup recycling FAQs
This may all sound pretty complicated, so we’re here to help to clear up those lingering doubts with answers to the most commonly asked questions.
What brands of K-Cups are recyclable?
Just about every brand of coffee pod is recyclable, although it can require some effort to separate and clean the various components, and it will depend on the type of materials accepted by your town’s recycling program. See more above on how to recycle your K-Cups.
The most recyclable coffee pods are Nespresso’s fully aluminum pods. The brand also makes things easy for you with their drop-off recycling program.
Why are K-Cups bad for the environment?
K-Cups are made of plastic and aluminum, both of which take decades, if not hundreds of years, to break down. To make matters worse, coffee grounds are biodegradable, but are trapped inside the plastic pods which prevents them from breaking down, adding to landfill.
What is the easiest way to recycle K-Cups?
If your town doesn’t accept whole K-Cups (most don’t), the easiest way to recycle them is to use a tool like the Recycle-a-Cup to pull them apart and dispose of the various components sustainably. If you use Nespresso coffee pods, you can just drop them off at a Nespresso retailer or participating UPS center for recycling.
If you’ve been wondering how to recycle K Cups, you’ll be relieved to know that this process is relatively easy, as long as you have the right approach and preferably a couple of tools!
However, it does require a certain amount of time, effort, and dedication to ensure that all components are disposed of responsibly. You also need to wash everything properly to ensure coffee grounds don’t end up in your recycling bin and contaminate the whole system.
Of course, the most sustainable choice of all would be to skip the single-use coffee maker and use a reusable K-cup alternative, a drip coffee maker or a french press instead!