Can Coffee Bags Be Recycled? All You Need To Know

can coffee bags be recycled

No matter how long you’ve been embracing a kinder, more environmentally conscious lifestyle, recycling can often feel like a minefield – especially when it comes to coffee bag recycling!

With conflicting information found online and so many different materials to learn how to recycle properly, it can be challenging to make the right recycling choices. This goes for products you’re likely to use every single day, like coffee bags and filters.

In fact, you’ll soon find that mainstream coffee bags are some of the hardest products to recycle if you don’t have access to a special waste recycling initiative like TerraCycle.

Hopefully this is set to change within the next few years. The British Coffee Association (BCA) has unveiled plans for implementing zero-waste packaging across all coffee products by 2025, furthering the UK government’s vision for more efficient waste management and circular economy practices.

But in the meantime, how can you make sure you’re doing your best to recycle coffee bags and support recyclable coffee packaging?

We’re here to answer the most commonly asked questions on coffee bag recycling and bust some persistent myths around the topic. So, if you’re looking for ways to easily recycle coffee bags in 2021, here’s all you need to know!

omnidegradable coffee bag packaging recyclable

What are the different types of coffee bags?

First things first, let’s take a look at how different types of coffee bags will need different approaches when it comes to recycling.

You’ll usually find coffee bags made out of plastic, paper, or a mix of foil and plastic, with the majority of coffee packaging being ‘flexible’ rather than rigid.

The nature of the packaging is essential when it comes to retaining the flavour and aroma of the coffee beans. Choosing a coffee bag that will meet eco-friendly requirements without sacrificing quality can be a tall order for both independent and mainstream retailers.

This is the reason why most coffee bags will be made out of a multi-layer structure, combining two different materials (commonly aluminum foil and classic polythene plastic) to preserve the bean quality of the beans and increase bag durability. All this while remaining flexible and compact for easy storage. 

In the case of foil-and-plastic coffee bags, the two materials are virtually impossible to separate in the same way you would with a carton of milk and its plastic cap. This leaves eco-conscious consumers with little to no alternative than leaving their coffee bags to end up in the landfill. 

So, are foil-lined coffee bags recyclable?

Unfortunately, the popular foil-lined plastic coffee bags cannot be recycled through your council’s recycling program.

That’s also true for coffee bags that are mostly made out of paper and lined with just a little bit of aluminum foil on the inside.

While these materials can both be recycled when taken separately, the issue with coffee bags is that they’re classified as ‘composite’ packaging. This means that the two materials cannot be separated and, in turn, recycled in any way.

Composite packaging is one of the most unsustainable packaging options used in the food and drink industry. That’s why initiatives like TerraCycle are trying to find a solution to the problem once and for all.

You’d hope most ethical coffee companies would use a recyclable bag, but this isn’t always the case. As technology evolves, I’m sure many will start to package in eco-friendly alternatives.

cafedirect machu picchu organic coffee in foil lined bag
Great organic coffee from Cafedirect, but in a foil-lined bag.

What can I do with empty coffee bags?

While finding a way to recycle coffee bags might be your top priority, there are still different ways you can reuse your empty coffee bags to combat single-use plastics and make a positive impact on circular, environmentally friendlier living. 

You might want to reuse them as wrapping paper, portable lunch bags, or flexible containers for miscellaneous kitchen items. 

Thanks to their durability, coffee bags also make for the perfect alternative to plant pots: Just pierce the bottom of the bag with a few small holes and fill it with enough soil to grow a small or even medium-sized house plant.

Those who are more creative and well-versed in everything DIY might even want to collect enough coffee bags to create intricate handbag designs, reusable shopping bags, or other upcycled accessories.

organic arabica coffee house plant
You might even be able to grow an Arabica coffee plant like mine in a coffee bag!

Is it possible to recycle coffee bags?

Now, while your recycling opportunities will be quite limited if you’re dealing with a foil-lined, composite coffee bag, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to chuck all your coffee bags in the bin or find creative ways to reuse them.

If your go-to coffee brand offers coffee bags made out of 100% paper, they can easily be recycled like you would any other paper packaging.

With just a quick Google search, you can find a number of different retailers offering Kraft paper packaging or even biodegradable coffee pouches made out of wood pulp. The latter option stands out as an alternative for coffee lovers who want to recycle coffee bags. It allows them to throw their empty coffee bags in the regular rubbish knowing that they’ll degrade and disappear in roughly 10 to 12 weeks. 

However, make sure you look out for sneaky greenwashing claims. Not all products labelled ‘biodegradable’ will indeed biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time. 

Some coffee brands might market their coffee bag packaging as fast-compostable while coating the inside with the same foil and polythene blend you’ll find in non-compostable packaging, leading to a product that’s only part fast-degradable.

For this reason it’s better to look out for certified compostable packaging. 

voyager coffee compostable packaging coffee bag

Some brands have mastered the balance with Omnidegradable packaging, while others are using 100% plant-based biodegradable packaging, free from any glues and hidden plastics. Both of these types of packaging are compostable, meaning they can be naturally broken down where organic matter is returned to the soil. 

You should keep in mind, however, that there’s a reason why so many independent roasters and mainstream brands choose to create their coffee bags with a multi-layer structure: It’s the best way of keeping those precious coffee beans fresh and protected from humidity. You can read more here on what is ethical coffee.

So, if you decide to start supporting paper and other single-layer packaging options, you should be doing plenty of research to make sure you’re storing your coffee in a way that won’t ruin its quality and signature taste!

Where can I recycle coffee bags?

two people drinking coffee outside

Upcycling and sustainable packaging aside, there are still ways you can actively recycle coffee bags, even if they come in composite packaging.

As we previously mentioned, waste management initiatives like TerraCycle can take care of your foil-lined, composite packaging and recycle coffee bags as-is, separating each material to be recycled or composted.

While this might not be an accessible option for everybody, it’s definitely a start.

As more independent roasters and the British Coffee Association continue to push for more sustainable coffee packaging, one can only imagine (and hope) how advanced solutions like plant-based compostable coffee bags might become in a few years’ time. This will undoubtedly help both you and me recycle our coffee bags more easily!

And in the meantime, there will always be more upcycled plant pots we can add to the garden!

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