Coffee is a huge part of many people’s mornings. The delicious drink helps people start their morning with a wonderful caffeine hit. But, as more people rely on coffee to help get going, some folks wonder if some parts of coffee brewing are good for the environment, especially the paper filters.
Let’s look at what coffee filters are good in the first place and if you can find some way to make disposable paper filters part of an eco-friendly approach.
What are Coffee Filters?
Coffee filters are the barrier that separates brewed coffee from the remaining water and leftover coffee grounds. Baristas and brewers place coffee grounds into a filter before passing hot water through the coffee maker. The barrier the filter makes between the brewed cup of coffee and the leftover grounds prevents any grounds from entering the drink.
All types of filters work by having pores or holes for liquids to pass through. These liquids can carry the dissolved bits of whatever solid they pass through. With coffee, hot water carries all the delicious flavors and caffeine of coffee after passing through the filter, leaving the larger pieces of coffee grounds behind since they cannot pass through the filter pores.
Typically, coffee filters come from paper, making them disposable, simple to make, and easy to use. While coffee filters used to be a staple only in coffee shops, many homes use filters today for their morning brew.
Pros and Cons of Coffee Filters?
Coffee filters might seem like an unnecessary addition to some brewers, depending on how they prefer their coffee. But, coffee filters have several upsides to using them, such as:
- Filters hold the coffee grounds during brewing, preventing unpleasant grounds from entering the drink
- Because filters hold the grounds, cleanup is as easy as grabbing the filter and tossing it away
- Paper filters trap compounds called diterpenes, a known contributor to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease
- Paper filters and coffee grounds are compostable
Still, there are some downsides to coffee filters, including:
- An extra step to the brewing process that can be wasteful if the filter is simply discarded
- Filters are not important for some brewing methods, such as cold brewing and French press methods
- Disposable filters add an extra cost to brew coffee, a drink that already requires import for most countries
Different Types of Coffee Filters
Several types of coffee filters exist out there, each with different benefits and negatives for both your morning coffee and your compost pile.
Paper Coffee Filters
Paper coffee filters come from porous paper. These filters hold coffee grounds in place while allowing hot water to pass over the grounds, making coffee.
Most paper filters used today come from bleached paper. The untreated paper has a brown or tan color to it from the wood pulp used during the manufacturing process. Beaching the paper and drying it out causes the familiar white sheen we know for. These filters also break down readily in compost.
However, some coffee drinkers worry that these filters don’t always receive the washout they need to get rid of all the bleach. Drinking bleach has many negative outcomes for the body, making them a health risk despite being the most popular coffee filter.
Unbleached Coffee Filters
Unbleached coffee filters are paper filters made with the same techniques as the standard paper ones. However, these filters do not undergo the same bleaching process that standard paper filters get, leaving them in their natural, tan state.
Thus, unbleached coffee filters are an upgrade for coffee drinkers looking to compost their leftover grounds. Also, since these filters don’t have bleach in them, there is no risk of toxic chemicals seeping into your compost or soil when composting these filters.
Unbleached coffee filters are not as common as the bleached varieties, though. You might have to go hunting through your grocer’s coffee section or do some scouting at a dedicated coffee product seller to find these filters.
Plastic Coating Filter
Filters with a plastic coating are filters made from a porous material like paper and then given a layer of plastic on the outside. This plastic coating allows the filter to work the same way it normally would, but instead of discarding it, you can wash it and reuse it.
Plastic coatings allow coffee drinkers to buy fewer filters since plastic washes easily with soap and dries quickly. It also cuts back on the total amount of paper a coffee drinker would need to enjoy their cup of coffee each morning.
However, plastic coatings come with their environmental drawbacks. These coatings do not break down in compost. Also, plastic requires an advanced industrial setup to create and uses a process that relies on fossil fuels.
Chemex Coffee Filters
You use Chemex coffee filters with the Chemex brewing method which uses a glass funnel attached to a coffee pot with a wooden belt. An unbleached filter designed for chemistry holds the grounds, allowing the coffee to filter out as the hot water passes through.
Because these filters come from paper and have no bleach, Chemex filters work well for compost bins. Also, the paper in a Chemex filter is non-reactive, meaning it creates less acid than in coffee than a standard paper filter.
Still, these filters are rarer than any of the filter types listed above. Thus, while Chemex filters are great for the environment and help make a more delicious cup of coffee, they can be costly and difficult to find for home brewers.
Why Should You Compost Coffee Filters?
Composting coffee filters is a simple process, especially for those already familiar with composting. Plus, coffee grounds and filters can add great nutrients to your compost that might not otherwise be there.
For example, coffee grounds are high in nitrogen, the element needed for many plant growth hormones. Access to more nitrogen, like digestible nitrogen like coffee, gives the plant more nutrients necessary to grow big and healthy.
Coffee grounds also don’t contain the same amount of acid we think they do. Most acid from coffee brewing ends up in the coffee we drink rather than staying behind on the grounds. This fact makes coffee a neutral addition to the pH balance of your compost and soil, not an acidic one.
The use of paper filters means that less plastic or metal waste is going into the environment.
Even if paper filters are not perfect for recyclables or compostables, some filters, especially bleached filters, can be bad for you and your compost.
Staying away from a bleached paper filter would be the best approach for those looking to add nutrients to their compost while staying healthy and eco-friendly.
Are Coffee Filters Bad for the Environment?
In general, paper filters are good for the environment compared to reusable plastic ones. Paper breaks down readily in compost, unlike plastics which can take millions of years to decompose. Also, paper breaks down into natural products, while plastic breaks down into toxic chemicals not safe for animal consumption.
However, bleached paper is another story. The white paper comes from paper treated with chlorine. The process removes the paper aftertaste that would come with using an unbleached filter but also introduces a failure point for home use.
If a manufacturer doesn’t rinse bleached paper well, that chlorine ends up in your coffee.
There is also the concern that paper comes from trees, creating further demand for lumber harvesting.
However, the net count of trees seems to be going up each year, meaning people pay attention to how many trees we use for human consumption each year.
Overall, paper filters win out because they put less strain on the environment than plastic or metal. You can replant trees, unlike the metal ores and fossil fuels used to make plastic and metal.
How Do You Compost Filters?
As mentioned, composting coffee filters is straightforward. Gardeners can follow many of the same practices they would when composting filters as they would with other organic materials like mulch.
Still, there are some tips specific to coffee filters that are worth keeping in mind:
- Retaining both the coffee grounds and the coffee filter will improve the overall quality of your compost
- Tear the coffee filter into pieces to increase the rate at which they break down
- Maintain a healthy balance of organic matter and old vegetation in the compost to give the decomposers in your compost a balanced diet to work with
- Don’t use just coffee grounds and filters
- Thoroughly mix the compost after adding the paper filters
- Add water if the top of your compost looks dry to help speed the process along
Whether you use paper filters or not, the good news is that they are compostable. Coffee grounds and coffee filters add nutrients to compost that might not be accessible from other common compostables without changing how you approach your composting methods.
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