We save money on fair-trade organic coffee by buying five-pound bags. Larger bags also mean less garbage per pound of coffee, but those metallized plastic bags are still an environmental problem: Most recycling programs won’t take them, and they’re not biodegradable.
For several years, I collected coffee bags—our own and those discarded by friends, co-workers, my church, and people attending various events at church who saw my flyer on the bulletin board and tacked their bags to it—until I had enough to pack a box very full, and then I mailed it to the Netherlands, to a company that was making tote bags out of coffee bags.
That was pretty cool, but trans-Atlantic postage is expensive, and then the company began struggling economically, reduced production, and told me they didn’t need more bags. I’m not sure if they’re still in business now. But I never stopped collecting bags. I needed another way to recycle them.
TerraCycle specializes in recycling unusual items that are difficult to recycle because of the multiple materials used in one item—things like juice pouches, toothpaste tubes, and three-ring binders. I learned about TerraCycle from my friend Suella, who began collecting markers and pens for TerraCycle several years ago, including all the markers and pens my son and his friends collected from their school.
The way TerraCycle works is that one person or family starts a “recycling brigade” for a particular type of item. You then invite everyone you know to be part of your brigade, bringing their items to you. The brigade orders a box (or mailing pouch) from TerraCycle, fills it with the designated type of recyclable item, and sends it back using the prepaid label.
For some types of items, a TerraCycle box is free. For others, you pay a fee that helps cover the cost of the box and shipping. Coffee bags are one of the categories with a fee. Still, I feel that getting coffee bags upcycled into new items or separated into materials that can be recycled is so much better than throwing them into a hole in the ground forever, that I’m willing to pay the fee. I consider it similar to contributing money to a charitable organization; it’s a slightly different way of making the world a better place.
Also, I had about three cubic feet of empty coffee bags in my closet when I learned that the Dutch company couldn’t take them anymore. Throwing away that many at once would feel a lot worse to me than throwing away one at a time—and I felt a sense of obligation to the people who had given me their bags with confidence that they would get recycled.
I figured the largest size box would be the best value and would hold all the coffee bags I had and maybe a few more. I think I misinterpreted the measurements, because this box is huge! After I carefully packed my bags in as tightly as I could, it was only one-third full. It was too much in the way in my closet, so I have it in my basement pantry now. I’ll choose a smaller size box next time, but I still think this is a basically convenient system for collecting hard-to-recycle items.
Still, I must say, it would really make sense for stores that sell large amounts of bagged coffee to have collection bins for the empty bags. They’d be able to collect a large amount much more quickly and easily than a small group of individuals. I plan to talk to some locally-based coffee shops about hosting TerraCycle boxes.
Meanwhile, if you live in the Pittsburgh area and buy coffee in metallized plastic bags, contact me to join my recycling brigade! If you live somewhere else, click here to learn more about starting your own brigade!
Speaking of coffee’s environmental impact, you may have heard that Keurig is starting to make its single-use coffee pods (K-cups) from polypropylene instead of a plastic blend so that they theoretically can be recycled. Learn why even recyclable coffee pods are environmentally and financially disastrous, and learn about better ways to make coffee, in my article at Kitchen Stewardship!
In addition to recycling your coffee bags, you can repurpose coffee grounds in your garden or for many household uses. We love scouring our cast-iron pans with coffee grounds–they remove stuck-on food without damaging the pan’s seasoning.