Woman replacing filter in a water pitcher

Have you recently switched from bottled water to tap water? It’s a good move, environmentally speaking. Single-use plastics account for 40% of the nearly 350 million metric tons of plastic produced annually across the globe. Coca-Cola alone produces the equivalent of 200,000 water bottles a minute.

Many people who forgo bottled water find they don’t like the taste of regular tap water and opt to use water filters. Water filters are a simple way to improve the taste of tap water and to filter out common contaminants like chlorine and lead.

Water Filters Need to Be Replaced Periodically

Water filters have to be replaced regularly in order to keep working as intended. Each style and type of filter operates differently and their replacement times vary. Luckily many water filters have some way of alerting you — such as a blinking light — when they need to be replaced.

The question then becomes: What do I do with my old water filter — are there recycling options?

Types of Water Filters

Before we get into recycling options, let’s be sure we’re taking into account all of the water filters you should replace periodically. Most of us are familiar with the 1- to 2-gallon pitchers that you fill with tap water and run through the filter before drinking.

Here are some other types of water filters you may have in and around your home:

  • Faucet-mounted filters
  • Cartridges for refrigerator filters
  • Under-the-sink filters
  • Faucet filters
  • Whole house filters

You probably don’t have all of these, but if you have even a few, that can add up to quite a few water filters. It’s worth looking at where you can recycle them.

Options for Recycling Water Filters

Unfortunately, many water filter manufacturers have discontinued their recycling programs. Mavea has closed its program and now refers customers to their local municipalities. Preserve’s Gimme 5 program paused due to the pandemic. Brita, however, still has an active program.

Brita has partnered with TerraCycle to create a mail-back recycling program that accepts any of their water filters. Once you register for their program, save your spent water filters. Brita incentivizes consumers to join the program by offering rewards points that can be applied to future purchases.

There are a couple of caveats to the program. You can send only one shipment per calendar year. They ask that you hold off on shipping until you have 5 pounds of water filters to return. That could mean storing filters for quite a while. You can work around this by collecting filters from friends to get to 5 pounds sooner. The program also accepts used Brita pitchers and bottles. Be sure to allow the filters to dry out for at least three days before shipping.

Once you have 5 pounds of filters, box them up, print one of Brita’s pre-paid shipping labels, and drop off the labeled box at a UPS location.

What About Compostable Water Filters?

There are a few brands out there that are working on creating water filters that have at least partially compostable and/or biodegradable filter components and reusable plastic casings. Most water filters require that both the plastic casing and the inner spongey material (carbon or bamboo) be replaced. TAPP and FIL2R have developed filters that have reusable plastic casings and replaceable filters.

The question of what to do with the inner filter remains. TAPP calls their filters biodegradable and compostable. They note that their filters “can be disposed of with organic waste,” which should then make their way to an industrial composting facility. Not everyone has access to those facilities, in which case most people would throw them in the trash. FIL2R states in their sales video that you can throw the activated carbon filter into your home compost pile. You may want to question the wisdom of adding material that has potentially trapped lead, chlorine, and mercury to your home compost.

Pay-to-Recycle Options

In theory, recycling should result in recovered resources that are usable and marketable. Plastic can be melted down to create plastic pellets for manufacturing. Electronics can be mined for their precious metals. Textiles can be shredded and made into insulation or furniture stuffing.

Markets are unpredictable, though, and oftentimes recycling facilities can’t recoup their labor and infrastructure costs from selling materials alone. Also, for harder-to-recycle materials, many facilities don’t have the proper machinery to recover materials. That’s why there are recycling facilities that charge for their services.

Water filter recycling programs that charge a fee are one option to consider if all other options don’t work out.

One company, recyclewaterfilters.com, recycles all kinds of water filters, including reverse osmosis, refrigerator, and even pool filters. They accept over 15 brands of filters.

Their instructions are relatively simple, but you do need to have an order number and their shipping label visible on the outside of the box. The shipping label for a 12”x12”x 5.5” package is $6.99. Two or more shipping labels cost $5.99 each. (This can be a USPS flat rate mailer or similar box.)

Check Local Options

There are often local options for hard-to-recycle items like water filters. Call your own curbside recycler, local recycling center, or your department of public works. Any of these may be able to point you in the right direction if they don’t accept water filters themselves.

You can also refer to Earth 911’s recycling database. Type in “water filters” and your ZIP code to find local facilities that take water filters. It’s always a good idea to call before you make a trip, though. Recycling programs frequently make changes to items they accept.

By Mary McDonald

Mary McDonald is a freelance writer based in Central Massachusetts. After working as a teacher for many years, she now writes about mental health, wellness, and the environment. You can find her on LinkedIn.