Making the Best of Used Coffee Grounds and Plastic Pods

February 10, 2020

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Enjoying coffee while considering composting and recycling

Right off, I am going to tell you this post will likely frustrate you.  I have been waiting weeks to complete it as I continue to research the benefits (and detriments) of using coffee grounds in the garden, along with how to properly dispose of those little individual coffee pods that have become so popular.  Not only have I arrived at opposing views on using coffee grounds in the garden, I’ve also come across a lack of consistency regarding if and how to recycle the plastic pods.  However, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and you can be the judge of the best course of action for you on one or both topics.  If you’d like to delve into the topics further, trust me, there are plenty of varying opinions to review on the internet! 

Coffee Grounds

Researching the benefits of adding coffee grounds to soil, I learned used grounds have been scientifically tested and the consensus is there are minerals such as potassium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and nitrogen found in the spent product.  These are all good nutrients to add to your soil, but in small doses unless you are aware you are greatly lacking in one and in that case, you would handle separately and differently.   The minerals found in spent coffee grounds are minute and slow absorbing, which I personally believe is a very good thing if you are supplementing already healthy plants.

It is the other ingredient found in coffee grounds – the caffeine – that is considered not so good for plants.  (Yes, even used regular and decaf coffee grounds have traces of caffeine left in them after brewing.)  Of course, it is the very effect of caffeine (increased alertness) that is the primary reason most of us drink coffee.  However, in the horticultural world, caffeine is the substance emitted by some plants that ensures other plants do not crowd them out.  Usually found in seed pods (of coffee & cocoa), it is a survival ingredient these plants discharge into the soil that stunts the growth of surrounding plants.  Most of my surface internet research found articles greatly touting the benefits of used coffee grounds in gardens, but researching a little deeper led me to an interesting study.   I came across a couple of articles that cited the same experiment whereby a researcher planted two identical gardens (of non-caffeine producing plants) and consistently mixed coffee grounds into the soil of one but not the other.  The garden that was supplemented with grounds did not grow as fast, tall or healthy as the other garden. It seems the caffeine was doing its intended job – stunting the growth of potential “competing” plants.  It is believed, however, there are some non-caffeine producing plants that are not particularly affected by this characteristic of caffeine – namely and fortunately, acid-loving plants such as azaleas and blueberries. 

Recycling Coffee Grounds from Plastic Pods
Dump spent coffee grounds into a wide mouth container to help keep mold from forming before you mix into your soil.

I live in a part of North Texas that has mostly alkaline, clay soil so the addition of a tad of coffee grounds now and then indeed seems to keep my azaleas happy.  (Azaleas are not the best shrub to have planted in my part of the state, I admit, but we have a rather shady front yard and my husband is quite partial to them.  Thus, we planted a dwarf variety and, consequently, we must supplement the soil around them more so than we do our native plants.) 

I also add a tad of coffee grounds every six to nine months to some of my leafy indoor plants.  I think it adds the needed minerals mentioned above that eventually become leached from potted plants’ soil.  So far, I’ve had no ill effects adding the grounds at such infrequent intervals as my indoor plants are thriving.

In addition to adding minerals and acidity to the soil, some people swear that spent coffee grounds also act as a great insect repellent. I read where one business applied the grounds around their electrical landscape lighting specifically to prevent ants from invading the wiring. I also read where coffee grounds work well to prevent snails and slugs from munching on your hostas and other tender seedlings in the spring. And, continuing the theme of this post, I read the contrary – that worms LOVE coffee grounds and applying them to your soil will create a healthy environment for these particular invertebrates!

So . . . in light of the contradictions and based on my personal experience, I suggest that whether adding coffee grounds to outdoor or indoor areas that you mix with organic potting soil to dilute their effect before applying.  Applying straight grounds can eventually cause them to bind together like wet sand or cement, negatively affecting the density of soil – especially that of clay. (Note: Do not make a habit of placing large amounts of coffee grounds in your garbage disposal for this reason!)  And, I never place grounds or the mixture directly onto a plant’s base.  Spreading a mixture of coffee and soil several inches from the base of the desired plant is far better than stacking grounds immediately around its stem/trunk.

My best advice is to use moderation as your guide when mixing spent coffee grounds into beds as a soil amendment or a pest repellent.  If you compost, adding them to your pile now and then should allow you to reap benefits without worrying too much about the effects of caffeine. If you collect a lot of grounds, try sharing with others who compost in your area and who may not be coffee drinkers so that you are not inadvertently overloading your mixture.  Also, and this is my personal thought, if you sometimes drink flavored coffee, you may wish to forego using those particular grounds in your garden as there may be artificial additives that have additional adverse effects on certain plants. Lastly, if you chose to use grounds solely as a pest repellent it may simply be best to use them away from any prized plants.

Coffee Pods

Now that we have the pros and cons of recycling coffee grounds out of the way, let’s move onto recycling coffee pods!  This is another area of which I have discovered different viewpoints in my research.  In the end, however, I think doing what we can to reduce items in our landfills (and other areas) is simply worth the extra time and effort.

Coffee Pod with Tab to help with recycling
Some coffee pods have tabs on the aluminum covers that make it easier to separate the contents from the recyclable plastic.

I won a pod coffee machine in a contest a year or so ago.  I use it and admit I like using it on “work days” when I’m in a hurry in the mornings. It is no secret that the coffee pods used in the machine are much more expensive than purchasing ground coffee in a bag.  The time saved, convenience, and ability to serve each individual in your household their preference of flavor, strength and level of caffeine are very attractive features of a pod coffee machine and are what make it worth the added expense for most.  Still, as I stacked the spent pods on my kitchen counter to recycle their grounds this past month, I was amazed at how those little plastic cups accumulated in my two-person household – especially when we are mostly one-cup-per-day drinkers.   (We make coffee in our traditional coffee maker on the weekends!)

Traditional coffee maker
Traditional coffee maker with tap water set aside in open bottles to help evaporate chemicals.

Before I move forward with this topic, I must disclose if you aren’t already aware, that there are refillable coffee pods on the market and, in fact, I ordered one last night. (See pic & details in the right sidebar.) These refillable pods will also allow you to individualize your coffee experience as you use your preference of ground, bagged coffee with each serving.  There is the added effort of washing the pod after each brew, but it shouldn’t take but a minute or two.  I have seen where some refillable pods suggest using tiny disposable paper filters inside, but, in my opinion, that defeats the purpose of protecting the environment from excessive debris.  Yes, paper is compost-able, but if you are going to use a refillable pod, I’d suggest using one that doesn’t require the addition of yet another filter.  My 2 cents.

If you are like me and have an abundance of plastic pods at home currently and/or you feel you will continue to use one-time pods, below are a few tips regarding recycling them.

  • Look on the underside of the pod and make certain it is stamped recyclable and make note of the “number” it is labeled.  Most companies, including Keurig, are producing their pods in recyclable plastics nowadays.   I have a variety of brands in my home and most are recyclable and stamped with the number 5. 
  • Most cities accept plastics 1 – 7 in their recycle programs.  Even though the pods are labeled number 5, I have read there are some cities that will not accept coffee pods at all due to their small size.  In fact, I was advised by telephone that one local city will not accept them, yet a neighboring city I called does.  I understand this relates to the sorting machinery used at each recycling facility.  It is highly recommended you call your city or local recycling facility to determine their policy before you go to the next step. 
  • If your city or facility accepts the pods, they likely told you they only accept the plastic portion, therefore you must separate the pod components in order to recycle.   I first separated my pods manually, but I admit it was difficult as some of the paper liner inevitably remained on the rim of the cup – which might further negate its ability to be recycled.  Therefore, I purchased a handy dandy, “recycle-a-cup” device. (See below and in the side bar.)
  • Whether using the recycle-a-cup device or separating the pod manually, dump the grounds into an open, wide container that will allow them to dry.  You do not want your grounds to mold, if at all possible.  I use a plastic, wide-mouth jar that I recycled from a snack product.
  • Some pods come with a tab that allows you to easily pull off the aluminum top. (See above pic.)  This is an easy way to get the grounds out of the pod, but the paper filter will likely still remain attached to the cup.  In this case, I peel the tab first, dump the coffee and use the recycle a cup device afterwards to remove the paper filter for a clean cut of the plastic. 
  • If you are composting, you can simply dump the paper filter in your pile along with the grounds.
  • If you are not recycling coffee grounds, use the recycle-a-cup to separate the parts and just toss everything in the garbage except for the plastic. 

Lastly, if you found your area does not recycle coffee pods at this time, you (or your employer) can pay for a mail-in service to do so for you. Yes, I know, paying for this seems a little odd and extravagant but the cost includes shipping the containers to and from your location and there is no need to go to the trouble of separating the pods.  I found two services such as this by performing an internet search.  The two I researched accept the pods in their whole state – they will separate the contents at their location and recycle accordingly.  Based on the criteria, I’d say a business is more likely to benefit from this type of service more so than an individual since each mail-in container supports about 150 pods and they need to be mailed in before the pods have time to mold.

Amazingly, I found a company that will accept separated plastic #5 coffee pods at only the cost of mailing them – and because there is no perishable content, you can send at the least expensive ground shipping rate. In fact you can double your recycling efforts by mailing your #5 pods in a previously used mailing box (think Amazon!). The company uses the plastic pods to create other useful items. Check out their program at Preserve Gimme 5. This is what I am doing with my remaining pods –

Plastic #5
Recycle “Triangle” Logo Stamped
on Bottom of Pod – Plastic #5

I admit this may be a small gesture in the whole scheme of world trash, but I feel I am doing my part by recycling coffee pods in return for having the convenience of a fresh, personalized cup of coffee in the morning.  And, as I mentioned earlier, I have ordered a refillable pod to begin using right after I finish up recycling all the plastic pods I purchased on holiday clearance last month! 

Summing up, I think the key word for this blog post is moderation – whether it is moderation in drinking coffee, moderation in applying spent grounds to your garden or moderation in what devices you use to brew your coffee.  Most of us shouldn’t drink coffee all day as it has unwanted side effects if consumed in large amounts.  We shouldn’t overdose our plants with coffee grounds (or any type of fertilizer for that matter) as it, too, will have unwanted side effects.  And, modern life yields appliances and devices that make things quicker and easier – i.e., the coffee pod machine – which, also, comes with unwanted side effects of excessive trash.  I’m not suggesting everyone give up this modern invention, but I am advocating we balance our use of coffee pod machines by investing in refillable pods or at least by recycling the plastic ones.

Until next time,

Cindy

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