If you’re a java lover who purchases coffee in bags rather than metal cans, you’ve likely wondered, “Can I recycle coffee bags?” at some point. As is the case for so many packaging items, the answer is, “Maybe, but probably not curbside.”
You may have heard the phrase, “If in doubt, toss it out,” in reference to recycling. It’s preferable to discard items unless you know for sure your local recycling facility accepts them. That’s because non-recyclable items interfere with efficient sorting at the recycling facility. Sometimes, they disrupt the functioning of equipment, which often results in lost time and money and can even be hazardous for workers. Because of contamination, recycling facilities may dump out full loads of worthy recyclable items when they’re mixed with non-recyclable items.
Unfortunately, non-recycling discards often include coffee bags.
Probably Not Curbside
Unless your program specifically accepts coffee bags, including them in your curbside bin jeopardizes the recycling load.
Usually, household recycling programs do not recycle empty coffee bags, even if the exterior looks like paper or foil. Representatives from the recycling industry, including Rumpke and WM, say the flexible packaging for your java beans and grounds is often manufactured with mixed materials. For example, paper or foil bags are often lined with plastic.
Bags layered with varied materials are not in demand for recycling, the representatives said. Packaging that’s paper only is likely recyclable, but most coffee bags have an inner coating to preserve the freshness of the beans.
“If you are a coffee drinker, the best option is a reusable container. But if that’s not an option, a recyclable paper bag is best,” says Amanda Pratt of Rumpke.
On its website San Jose Recycles, the City of San Jose offers a recommendation to reduce packaging waste. “Instead of buying single bags of coffee, buy coffee beans from the bulk section of your supermarket. Bring an empty coffee bag or jar into the store for your coffee instead of using a brand new container every time.”
If you buy beans from bulk bins, ask your grocer if using your own jar or pouch is allowed.
Recycling by Mail
These TerraCycle programs offer recycling opportunities for empty coffee packaging that is not usually accepted with household recycling.
Dunkin’ and TerraCycle established a free recycling program for eligible Dunkin’-brand coffee bags. If you want to participate, you need to establish a TerraCycle account and enroll online. When you’ve filled a box with Dunkin’ bags, print out a free UPS shipping label and ship off your empties.
“We encourage you to ship when your box is full to minimize the transportation carbon footprint for this program,” the TerraCycle website states.
Don Francisco’s coffee bags from F. Gaviña & Sons are also eligible for free recycling with TerraCycle. In addition to the empty bags, the TerraCycle partnership program also accepts:
- Don Francisco’s coffee pods
- Café La Llave espresso coffee pods
Learn more about the free program online.
Zero Waste Box
TerraCycle accepts a variety of hard-to-recycle waste items through its fee-based Zero Waste Box program. This is a good option for businesses or organizations that generate a lot of the specified waste type. For coffee-related recyclables, these programs include:
TerraCycle explains that the empty bags may be melted into hard plastic, which can be remolded to make new products such as park benches and picnic tables.
Mary Ellen Down of TerraCycle states, “We work with brands, retailers, and other stakeholders who fund the recycling process. We have in-house scientists and material application specialists who work out how to recycle all kinds of materials. We then use our global network of processors to convert the items into raw material, which is then sold to manufacturing companies.”
Upcycled Coffee Bags
If you’d like to upcycle your empty bags, here are some decorative and fun projects:
- Weave a bag or basket from empty coffee bags; the instructions are on YouTube.
- Turn a foil-lined bag into a tabletop planter (from We Must Be Dreamers) or a hanging planter (from Instructables).
- Make a coffee bag bracelet with help from instructions on YouTube.
Also, check out the ESPRESSO selection of handmade accessories created from upcycled coffee bags.
Some producers, cafes, and coffee shops are working on establishing or enhancing more sustainable packaging and recycling programs.
Australian coffee roaster and cafe chain Industry Beans, for example, favors Eco Barista™ recyclable coffee bags. “These bags are made using soft plastics (polyethelyn), stripping away aluminum and using a removable valve to ensure the bag can be recycled and coffee is protected and kept fresh,” states the website.
Tell your favorite suppliers you’re eager to support their sustainability endeavors. If possible, avoid the hard-to-recycle bags by purchasing your beans in bulk at a store or coop where you can bring your own reusable container.
Originally published on April 25, 2022, this article was updated in April 2023.