K-Cup DIY Recycling

Outdoors, Technical & How-to

Caffeine is My Jet Fuel; Nitrogen is My Garden’s!

21 Jan , 2019  

We haven’t ditched the 12-cup drip coffee maker for our morning coffee, but the single-serve Keurig coffee maker lets us make less in the afternoon or evening, and lets me indulge my taste buds with a variety of flavored coffees while my husband sticks to his preferred brand of Columbian coffee. There’s just one problem: K-Cups aren’t recyclable.

Or, are they?

Last year, we installed a compost bin in the back yard. It has started producing some quality compost, and some of the nitrogen is supplied by our morning coffee grounds and paper filters. Seemed a shame to let the grounds in the K-Cups go to waste. I started looking into whether it might be possible to at least salvage the grounds.

It’s not too difficult to strip the foil lid from a K-Cup. I save up about a week’s worth, then strip the lids and dump the grounds onto a paper towel–wait, what?

Rewind. Paper towels, it turns out, make poor composting material. They just don’t break down as easily as coffee filters or cardboard or leaves. In trying to be good for the environment, I’m just making more waste for the landfill. So, I trade the paper towel for a dinner plate. Pull the trash bin next to the table, and settle in. It’s a bit tedious.

K-Cup DIY Recycling

Rewind, again. Make a cup of coffee to enjoy while working. Add the pod to the pile. Build the Tower of London. Settle in.

First, stick a thumb into the hole in the center of the foil lid and rip to the edge of the plastic cup. Peel the lid away in a circular motion.

Up-end the K-Cup and tap out the contents onto the plate. (Squeeze the sides of the plastic cup to loosen the coffee grounds.) Ask yourself why nearly dry coffee grounds stick to the sides of smooth plastic. Peer closer at the damned thing. Say whaaaat?

That’s paper. A teeny-tiny paper filter! Reach in and grab it, any way you can. You’re not going to reuse it, so it doesn’t matter one bit if it tears. Just grab and pull:

Or, scrape around the top edge with a fingernail (my manicurist hates me now) and rip that filter right out of the cup. There’s just a tiny rim of glue at the top edge, holding it in.

Good thing coffee filters are compostable, too!

Ahh, lovely depth of field, eh? If you love digging in the dirt, but it’s a cold and rainy day, this is the perfect feel-good activity.

If you’re really feeling artsy, you might try using the coffee-stained filters to make paper. All you’ll need is a whole lot of them, a blender, a drying screen, some natural sunshine – but that’s a project for another day. Today, this is future plant food.

I feel better about my excessively consumerish coffee habits, now, don’t you?

I still wasn’t sure what to do about the plastic cups – it’s more effort than it’s worth to try to scrape off the rim of glued-on paper filter, rinse the cups, and figure out whether they’re recyclable.  It turns out, though, that they are – and that there IS an even better solution, if you’re willing to spend $10 (and if it saves a $25 manicure, why wouldn’t you be?)

I’ve ordered this little gadget called the Recycle A Cup Cutter. I found it while fact-checking myself on this post. The cutter more easily separates the foil lid, plastic cup, and the filter with its coffee grounds. If your community does not offer recycling or doesn’t take #7 plastic, you can collect all your little plastic cups (they’re lightweight and stackable) and send them in for recycling! A single cutter is $9.99 and shipping is free if you live in the continental U.S.A. I’ll let you know how it goes, once mine gets here.

UPDATE: It’s arrived! It works exactly as advertised, making the composting and recycling chore a lot faster, cleaner, and more manicure friendly. Definitely worth the $10 (and they must not have had the single cutter – they sent me two!) Basically, the device fits over the lid. Squeeze the green buttons on both sides, and two little cutters (like tiny X-Acto knives) come out. Twist, one full turn, and you’re done! You can recycle the plastic cups and dispose of the coffee (still in the filter, still attached to the ring with the foil lid attached), or you can now easily pull off the filter with the coffee grounds to compost, first.

There’s no need to point out to me, in the comments, that I can already get refillable, reusable filter baskets for the Keurig. I have them and and I use them regularly!

I have both of the types shown below – both work in the K-Elite – be sure to buy the kind that are compatible with your coffee maker, as they are not all “universal”:

But sometimes, I do enjoy the convenience of the regular K-Cups (not having to scrape and wash the teeny-tiny metal filter basket, for example – and would rather just save up the K-Cups (now that I know they’re not quite the ecological disaster they appear to be) and recycle them myself.

I hope, now that you see how easy it is, you’ll feed your garden and do your little bit to reduce plastic in the landfills! Read “11 Ways to Use Coffee Grounds at Home and in the Garden” for even more recycling ideas. If you work in an office that has a Keurig, set a bin behind the machine to collect the cups, take them home, and use them to feed your own plants. I doubt anyone will mind, if you’re willing to put in a few minutes’ work on it each week! Take turns, if other gardeners like the idea. Or at least get one of the little cutters and encourage co-workers to take a minute to separate the bits and put the plastic into the recycle bin instead of the trash.

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18 Responses

  1. How about that? I stopped drinking coffee last year. I think it is great that you are so conscientious about recycling. We’re going to need that spirit when the zombie apocalypse comes! 🙂

    Seriously, though, as a painter, you could use the cups to hold your paints. Since I love to make games, I could see myself making a a mini-Skee-ball alley, with marbles and K-cups!

    Do you remember the cool holders for nuts, bolts and screws made from baby food jars? You would secure the lids to a plank, then just put the bits and bobs into the jars, screw them to the lids and, voilà! Instant storage.

    I think the K-cups are too small for such purposes, but if you needed a handy place for beads, baubles and whatnot (bangles?), that might work, after a fashion.



    • Mitch, when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’m going to be collecting Bic lighters and scrounging the bars for all the Bacardi 151 I can get my hands on. Not only is this DIY flamethrower my weapon of choice, but if all is well and truly lost, I plan to go out with an anesthetized and drunken smile on my face.

      Seriously, though, no. As a painter, the cups would SUCK as paint pots. There’s a HOLE in the bottom of each one, where the coffee comes out. 🙂 But, as Patricia pointed out, they can be used as teeny-tiny plant starters. I could decorate them, first. Maybe give them to my kids, since I’m now growing Purple Zebrina in the clay pots they painted for me in daycare and kindergarten! I love your creativity, Mitch. I have a feeling we grew up in a similar era.

      • We did, and we have a lot of similar tastes in reading, programming and gaming. I forgot about the holes in the bottom: I only used them when I worked as a temp.

        I love your flamethrower!



  2. Pat Stoltey says:

    For gardeners, the K-cups can be used to start plants in the spring from seed. And for that, the filter and some of the coffee grounds can stay in the cup.

    • That’s a great idea! I’ve been saving the cardboard egg cartons (not the foam kind) to try rooting herb cuttings in. I’d read something about using these, too – and wouldn’t they be cute, decorated with Sharpie Markers? Um… preschool craft ideas!! I love this.

  3. Anne Bender says:

    That’s pretty cool about the cup cutter. We use a 12 cup drip coffee maker that has a one-cup option to the side with a mini coffee basket. I have a regular-size reusable coffee basket, but have been using the unbleached coffee filters since it makes it easier to put the coffee grounds in the compost for our garden. We keep an empty coffee can by the coffee maker for the grounds/filters until it’s full.

    • Yep! Great way to recycle those coffee cans, too! (I also use the cans for grease – which should never, ever, go down the drain and into the pipes! – and bones, when making chicken soup or other things with small-ish bones.) The sad truth is, most of us won’t bother if it isn’t at least somewhat fast and easy. Once we START, though, it’s kind of fun and encourages us to do it more. Bit by bit. I feel like I’m channeling my inner child – the 1970s era environmental activist, not the cynical one of the 2000s.

      • Anne Bender says:

        We use the cans for grease, too. When I lived in South Florida I had an issue with water backing up. Turned out it was a huge grease plug from the neighbors pouring grease down the drain. Yuck! Now we have a septic system and had to replace it a few years back (due to age, not grease) so we’re extra careful of what goes down the drain. Did you know that coffee grounds are bad for your pipes and should never be poured down the drain either?

      • I did no know that for sure, but seems no one ever just empties coffee grounds down the disposal. Not sure why, unless it’s for the same reason you don’t just add them straight to the garden – they clump together.

  4. Rummuser says:

    I am a tea person and my garden is in the very capable care of my daughter in love. I have enough sense to leave her to manage it as it gives me endless pleasure to just look at it!

  5. Peter Wright says:

    Good post on reusing Keurig coffe pot / cups or whatever they should be called. I don’t have a coffee machine. I use instant or one of those press things that does not use filter paper. I have always been reluctant to use the Keurig type machines when offered coffee because of the pollution angle. Now I will reconsider.

    I also remember being told never to pour coffee grounds down the drain.

    Opened egg cartons filled with wood chips are excellent for starting the fire in our wood furnace if there are no burning coals left in the morning. Don’t need them in the current deep freeze as I get up at 2 am to put in more wood.

    • I wish I knew how to do a better job of cleaning a French press or a reusable filter basket. If you’re not to put grounds down the drain how do you rinse them out of the filter/pot? I’m open to any good suggestions/methods. I like my single-serve French press mug a lot, but cleaning it without getting grounds in the drain can be tricky.

      Do reconsider, but if you’re determined to avoid the “pollution angle,” take your K-Cup with you and recycle it yourself, unless you know that your host will bother to do so. Many people won’t. Remember, it’s all about the convenience. I’ve heard that the inventor of the machine now regrets it for that very reason.

      Good tip on the egg carton-firestarter! I’m definitely planning to turn mine into an herb garden, but I have the joys of central heating, here, and our fireplace is a (broken) gas appliance. More for show and imaginary warmth, than anything, so we have bothered spending the money to fix it (again). I mean, come on – it turns on with a LIGHT SWITCH. (Real flames, but anything you can flip on with a light switch doesn’t seem quite right when it comes to FIRE, does it?)

  6. Shinjini says:

    I admire your dedication to recycle! I may have just given up and switched back to the regular coffee filter instead. 😉

    • I don’t know that I’m all that “dedicated.” I think of myself as a recycling moderate. I know there’s a great return on investment when recycling aluminum, for example. Paper can have a good return, but people don’t really understand what paper is recyclable vs what will damage the recycling equipment. Foam cups ARE recyclable! Just need the right equipment and not all facilities have it, but the foam can make for decent gardening gloves and other products, when recycled. Recycling not only keeps things out of landfills and gives the material new life, it is energy saving (sometimes – see: aluminum). So, I’m a believer, when it makes sense. Why not feed my garden scraps, rather than let them attract vermin in a landfill?

  7. Shilpa Garg says:

    This is an eye-opener of a post for me. Loved the detailed information with pictures on recycling and compost making. Thanks for enlightening and inspiring 🙂

  8. Ally Bean says:

    I’ve been thinking about starting a composting bin in our backyard/forest. We still do drip coffee most of the time so I have that part in hand, but I’ve wondered how one would get the coffee out of those K-cups. Should we ever get one of those machines. Now I know, so thank you.

    • You’re welcome! Beware, one thing leads to another. We both got into composting, and now have a small wood chipper to turn branches intro compostable bits of wood!

      Speaking of coffee, THAT’S what’s missing from my morning. Off to see a Keurig about a cup…

  9. […] learned to keep a few houseplants and an herb garden alive, and in the process, I’ve taken up recycling and composting to better nourish them. And, apparently, a whole community of tree […]

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