November 21, 2019

How to Recycle Coffee Equipment & Shop Sustainably


How are your coffee habits affecting the planet? Paper filters, coffee grounds, and plastic coffee brewers: the environmental impact of brewing coffee can soon add up.

Fortunately, conscientious purchasing and the appropriate reuse and recycling of old or broken equipment can go a long way to building more environmentally friendly habits. Whether you’re an avid home brewer or a regular at your favourite coffee shop, there are many ways to make your passion for coffee more sustainable. 

To find out more, I spoke with James Gray, Co-Founder of UK-based coffee equipment manufacturer Barista & Co

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Reciclar Equipos Para Café y Hacer Compras Sostenibles

Coffee is brewed with a pour over device. Credit: Barista & Co

The Lifespan of Commonly Used Coffee Equipment

While single-use plastic often attracts the most attention in the discussion around economic sustainability, all materials have an environmental footprint.

There are several main materials used in manufacturing coffee equipment, such as stainless steel, various kinds of plastics, ceramic, and glass.

Stainless steel is unable to biodegrade but may corrode and become damaged under irregular circumstances, for example, exposure to certain chemicals. There are many kinds of plastics, but in general, plastic items can take around 1,000 years to decompose in landfill. Both glazed ceramics and glass can take millions of years to biodegrade, with some sources claiming that they will never fully decompose.

(This does not take into account the use of resources to manufacture and transport those products. Producing plastic, for example, requires crude oil as well as other fossil fuels.)

If your goal is to shop sustainably, the lifespan of the materials used in your coffee equipment should factor into what you buy and how you dispose of items.

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Milk pitchers made of different materials. Credit: Barista & Co

Buying Environmentally Friendly Products

When almost 2.5 billion takeaway paper cups are disposed of in the UK each year, 99.75% of which are not recycled, buying the right products – such as travel cups – can have a huge impact. 

However, remember that every product represents an environmental cost. Make sure you are buying something that you will reuse. If it has been made locally or out of eco-friendly or recycled materials, that will go a long way to further reducing its impact on the environment.

“The demand for reusable cups has been huge, which is a great thing,” James tells me. “I do think it is important that consumers and coffee shops consider quality in this area, as buying low-cost reusable cups that have travelled the world and don’t last is often worse for the planet.”

Buying new filters? These cannot be recycled after they’ve been used, due to contact with the coffee oils. However, consider whether they’re made of recycled materials, or look towards other types of filters. A metal filter, fabric sock, or even filter-free brewing methods such as the French press or coffee infusers can cut down on your daily waste.

Some products will also represent an investment in sustainable initiatives. One of the coffee industry’s biggest environmental footprints is water usage and contamination. This is because washed processing, which is one of the most popular ways to remove coffee beans from the coffee cherry, relies on fermenting the fruit in tanks of water. According to Project Waterfall, up to 840 litres of water is needed to make just one 750 ml pot of coffee.

Rebecca Hodgson is a Programme Manager at Project Waterfall, a charity seeking to end the water crisis for people living within the coffee belt, the area of land around the equator where coffee can be farmed. 

785 million people lack access to clean water and 1.6 million people die each year because of water-related diseases. Project Waterfall focuses on the installation and maintenance of clean water systems, and partners with companies such as Barista & Co to raise funds. Recently, Barista & Co produced a range of home brewing tools and professional milk pitchers to support Project Waterfall.

Rebecca tells me that consumers can drive change. “We have the power to make a real difference in the ways that companies act, and the more we ask for companies to do the right thing, the more they will listen… 

“If you have a choice between two products or two coffee shops, and one donates a [percentage] of their profits back to a good cause, try to support the one that’s giving back. It will not only encourage them to do more, it will also encourage other coffee shops or coffee brands to follow in their footsteps.”

A Barista & Co. Brew-It Stick is used to brew coffee. A percentage of sales of the teal version is donated to Project Waterfall. Credit: Tom Burn

How to Recycle Coffee Equipment

Exactly what you can recycle will depend on your local authority and proximity to appropriate recycling centres. You should be able to find information online about what you can recycle, and whether it will be collected from your house or whether you need to take it to a recycling bank.

You may find you need to separate materials for an item to be accepted. For example, if a product is made of plastic and glass, you might need to put the different parts into different recycling bins. Glass is 100% recyclable and can be continuously recycled without any deterioration in quality or function. James tells me that plastics can be complicated to sort into recyclable and non-recyclable, but ones such as polypropylene can be recycled many times. However, many recycling centres won’t accept plastic recycling that contains glass and vice versa.

Alternatively, if you find that your equipment cannot be recycled locally, the product manufacturer may be able to recycle it for you. For example, James tells me that Barista & Co offer a repair and recycling programme for customers who find that their product is damaged or has come to the end of its lifespan.

“Step one is to establish if we can repair a product for a customer, and that could be as simple as sending a spare part…,” James explains. “If repair isn’t possible, and we have to be sensible [as] products do reach an end at some point, then they can send their product back through our simple returns service and we even help to cover the cost of return.”

French press coffee is served. Credit: Barista & Co

The Sustainable Disposal of Unrecyclable Materials

Unfortunately, not all products can be recycled. Ceramics, for example, can be broken down to their original form and remade, but this usually results in a much weaker material.

The issue with recycling plastics is that there are over 50 different types of plastic; some can be recycled and some cannot. Out of the seven main types; only two are widely accepted for recycling.

Plastics tend to be grouped together when presented for recycling, and due to the similarities in their densities, it can be difficult for them to be sorted and reprocessed. Sometimes, this leads to all plastics being incinerated or disposed of as landfill.

Yet even though certain materials in coffee equipment may not be recyclable, we can still dispose of them conscientiously and sustainably.

Most charity shops will accept any kitchen or drinkware that is in good working condition. If you are not able to take the item to the store, then home collection may be possible. Second-hand shops are also an option for better-quality or more valuable coffee equipment.

Upcycling could be a more creative avenue for breathing life and charm back into unused or unusable coffee equipment. You may be able to refashion a coffee brewer into a lamp, vase, or plant pot.

Fundraising for Project Waterfall during UK Coffee Week. Credit: Cephas Azariah

“I’ve seen a huge shift in awareness over the past two years – I feel optimistic that both coffee drinkers and the coffee industry are becoming more aware of the challenges facing our environment and coffee growing communities,” Rebecca tells me.

It’s up to us to keep this momentum going. Simply buying a reusable cup for your daily trip to the café, or sending your old brewer off for recycling, can make a huge difference to the world’s environmental sustainability – and to the communities farming that coffee you’re sipping.

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 Feature photo credit: Tom Burn

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Barista & Co.  

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