By Elizah Leigh on August 20, 2012

While few recycling programs exist for the billions of coffee capsules used annually, many creative reuses have come to light.

Great idea: an individual, hot beverage-dispensing system that reduces the potential for consumer product waste by delivering a single cup of your favorite brew on demand. No more crowd-sized pots of coffee going down the drain or spent filters and foil pouches needlessly clogging landfills. What an environmental innovation. Or is it?

What are one-time-use coffee capsules made of?

It depends on the brand. Natural fiber-based, oxygen-bleached Senseo pods can add a nice little nutrient boost to your garden when you compost them, but they are in the green minority. For the most part, the majority of single-use coffee capsules present all sorts of eco-conundrums.

Keurig’s plastic K-cups, which look like individual coffee creamer containers with an inner paper filter and polyethylene-coated aluminum foil top, have so many raw materials at play that they are not biodegradable when thrown away as a complete unit.

Also designed to be used just once, Tassimo’s plastic T Discs topped with foil seals are no better. The good news is that eco-inspired individuals continue to devise creative reuse options, plus TerraCycle has established a free collection brigade so that such packaging can be diverted from the waste stream and instead “reinvented” as all sorts of post-consumer products.

Nespresso’s decidedly more glam metallic capsules are made with 1 gram of aluminum per container. The infinitely recyclable material is a seemingly good choice compared to previously mentioned options, but the reality is that upon being used, the miniature cups are rarely diverted from the landfill due to extremely limited global collection programs (although the company is in the process of ramping up its sustainability efforts).

recycled coffee capsules

How many one-time-use aluminum coffee capsules are disposed each year?

Of the 6 billion aluminum cups that Nespresso claims are being used by hot beverage enthusiasts annually, it is estimated that more than 3,200 metric tons of the fully recyclable metal ends up in landfills. Barriers include a lack of widespread formal recycling programs as well as machinery that is susceptible to mechanical failure in the presence of small items (such as the diminutive capsules). Furthermore, consumers typically lack the desire to follow necessary pre-recycling protocols, such as thoroughly removing residual coffee grounds first, which can significantly compromise aluminum reclamation efforts.

How can one-time-use aluminum coffee capsules be repurposed?

1) Make a trio of “forever” flowers that will add a cheerful accent to your patio long after your landscape has surrendered its beauty to the cold autumn and winter months.

2) Deck your halls with extra eco-spirit courtesy of handcrafted Christmas decorations like dangling Nespresso bells.

3) Add sparkle to your finger with a floral cocktail ring.

4) Pull your stylish look together with coordinating rosette earrings and an equally botanical brooch, both of which look nothing like the original aluminum coffee packaging from which they were crafted.

5) Your neck deserves a little attention, too. Whether coffee capsules are transformed into three-dimensional eco-beads, strung together on leather cord or punctuated with prehistoric stones, bits of shimmery glass or simply just wire wrapped, they can take on a very unique appearance.

6) Go the whole green yard by trimming yourself a top or a zippered hand clutch with flattened coffee capsules.

7) Australian fashion designer Rachel Rodwell is putting the finishing touches on her sustainable textile and jewelry collection, Podex, which utilizes empty Nespresso coffee pods. But, this is not the first time that Nespresso-studded garments have made their grand entrance!

recycled coffee capsules

8) “Grand Crus Cup Parade,” created by Dottings, a Vienna-based industrial design firm, is a collection of beverage receptacles that emulate the appearance and color of Nespresso pods. The basic thrust of this concept is to reward consumers who deposit their empty coffee capsules at designated recycling stations with eco-points that can be exchanged for Dottings’ unique set.

9) Experiment by creating your own original recycled coffee capsule art.

10) Separate a room or add sparkle to a window by hanging a flattened coffee pod curtain.

11) Cultivate this year’s garden varieties — literally, from the ground up — by planting your seeds in individual repurposed coffee capsule pots.

12) Bright, jewel-toned aluminum capsules can make a string of holiday lights look far more festive (with minimal modification), but if you are happy to plunge into deeper crafty waters, they can be transformed into even more decorative floral light shades.

13) Alex Aebi clearly exercises a great deal of artistic commitment by transforming bits and pieces of carefully snipped Nespresso pods into a charming collection of colorful insects.

14) Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler turned 700 crushed aluminum coffee capsules into a fully operational battery array!

15) Sometimes, “simple” ideas make the most sense, so go ahead and turn your empties into happy-faced capsule people!

About the author

Elizah Leigh is an eco-inspired wordsmith capable of captivating readers in just the right manner to facilitate subliminal greenlightenment. If it hasn’t yet happened to you, dear reader, don’t worry... it soon will. She believes that walking on the green side of life isn’t so much about random actions like recycling household materials and eschewing bottled water as it really should be about committing to long-term lifestyle changes that naturally become effortless the more frequently they are practiced — and believe it or not, if you’re looking at the world through green-colored glasses, it’s never a chore.

Working as an eco-journalist for a number of online venues, including Ecorazzi, WebEcoist, WebUrbanist and Causecast, this self-confessed eager greenie and knowledge hound has become deeply entrenched in the world of green living and makes a conscious effort at all times to practice exactly what she preaches. Elizah feels that no one is an "expert" in this field as long as they continue to keep an open mind by acquiring new eco-feathers in their cap — something that she aspires to do with each new article that she authors.

Extremely passionate about greening perspectives as well as lifestyles one carefully selected word at a time, this eco-writer feels privileged to add the 1-800-RECYCLING audience to her increasingly expanding network of green-minded readers. When she’s not tweeting her ever-lovin’ greenie heart out or adding new eco-themed articles to her portfolio, she can be found frolicking outside or shooting the breeze with her menagerie of impossibly needy geriatric felines.

As for what Elizah hopes to bring to 1-800-RECYCLING? Believe it or not, she is convinced that we are all capable of carving out individual and collective legacies in which caring enough about what we do while we walk this earth ensures that future generations enjoy the same basic privileges that we currently do. Can collections of carefully crafted environmentally themed words help facilitate this lofty plan for eco-friendly ah-ha! inspiration? Stranger things have been done to honor Mother Nature. For now, that’s her eager greenie goal, and she’s definitely sticking to it.

Learn more about Elizah Leigh


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