Green Lifestyle

Published on October 3rd, 2016 | by TerraCycle


Solutions for Single-Serve Coffee Pods and Capsule Waste

What started as a single-serving beverage brewing system targeting the office market has grown into the standard by which people make coffee at home, in waiting rooms, at convenience stores and in the workplace, but these things are an eco-disaster.

coffee pods

coffee pods are an environmental disaster

How Coffee Pods Came to Dominate!

Single-serving coffee pods and their related brewing machines are the second most popular brewing system after standard drip coffee makers, with 25 percent of American coffee drinkers using them in 2015, beating out instant coffee and ready-to-drink coffee beverages. Soon expected to totally overtake standard roast, ground and instant coffee with a whopping 30 percent sector increase in the U.K., coffee pods and capsules continue their rise to the standard in hot beverage consumption.

While the category’s metonymic capsules and pods have disrupted the way coffee is produced and consumed, the market no longer ends there. Single-serving pod-based beverages now include hot chocolate, ciders, fruit drinks, teas, cold brew coffee, iced tea, even beer and Jell-O shots.

This rapid market growth is despite the environmental implications that have put the category under fire for the exorbitant amount of waste they create, the component make-up of which is fast-tracked for the landfill or the incinerator. Comprised of plastics, aluminum, foil, and paper components that require separating and additional processing due to contact with food and beverage substances, these items are not recyclable in the current infrastructure.

Why aren’t coffee and beverage pods recyclable?

The hard truth is most of the product and packaging waste we create falls outside the scope of municipal recycling. Where the economics of waste dictate that an item will only be recycled if it is profitable to do so, coffee and beverage pods are the precise opposite of profitable; not only is collection and processing of these mixed component products quite costly to begin with, potential contamination of recycled materials at recycling facilities due to a rogue pod creates a negative cost for municipalities.

In this fast-paced culture of convenience that prompts people to purchase these brewing systems in the first place, it is highly unlikely that their users will sit down to separate the pods’ component parts. But even those who want to have their coffee quick and eco-friendly, too, and do set aside the time and effort to take apart the plastic, metal, paper and compostable coffee grinds may be doing so to no end; these components parts are so small that most recycling facilities are not able to capture them.

It is clear that these mixed-component items cause a lot of waste (in 2013, enough of one brand of coffee capsules were produced that, if placed end-to-end, they would circle the Earth 10.5 times), but people continue to use them in a world where convenience is currency. The coffee pod industry purports that the controlled water temperature and pressure, exact measurement of coffee or tea per pod, internal filter and air tight pod structure delivered by this type of single-serving system creates the “perfect cup” with precision. The jury may be out on that one, but the fact remains that these little pods cause a big waste problem.

What Can be Done to Recycle Coffee Pods?

For the eco-conscious consumers who use coffee pods, work in an environment that uses them, or simply want to spread the word, there are custom solutions available. TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes provides an accessible option for consumers, offices, schools and more, to solve for this waste stream and contribute to a more sustainable landscape. Zero Waste Boxes solve for capsule and pod waste, and many other waste streams that cannot be recycled through curbside.

Read more: Why K-Cup (Coffee Pod) Recycling is Not Enough

coffee-capsules-box-mockup-v3-us-thumbnail_1024x1024To get started, you can order your custom category separation Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle. Once received, TerraCycle recommends placing recycling boxes in a high traffic area where coffee capsules are used and typically thrown away. When the recycling box is full, the liner must be tightly closed inside the box prior to shipping. Once the top of the box is sealed securely with packing tape, it can be placed in the designated shipping area to be sent back to TerraCycle. When TerraCycle receives the box, the adhesive packing will be recycled into new, innovative products, like park benches, chairs, watering cans and even paving stones.

We are sitting on a mountain of coffee pods, so solving for their waste can seem like an uphill battle. But recognizing the problem and being aware of a solution is the most important ingredient for galvanizing action and structural change.

If you still have them lying around, here are 17 ways to upcycle of all the coffee pods.

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About the Author

Founded in 2001, TerraCycle, Inc., is the world’s leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, ranging from used chip bags to coffee capsules to cigarette butts. Each year, across 20 countries, TerraCycle collects and repurposes billions of pieces of waste, donating millions of dollars to schools and charities in the process. To learn more about TerraCycle or get involved in our recycling programs, please visit

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