Losing the Paper in Your Coffee

Posted on January 3, 2012 by Jacob

Photo: Olivier Bacquet

For years I’ve made coffee the old fashioned way with a drip coffee machine and paper filters. I did get the brown, unbleached filters. I don’t normally drink any coffee during June and July when I don’t have to work, but that’s still hundreds of filters thrown away each year. This is especially annoying as I also drink tea, but I buy it loose so I don’t have the waste of a used teabag (and also the option to buy better tea). Why should I had to add paper to the coffee equation?

Turns out that this is a pretty easy problem to avoid. Your local grocery store probably sells a reusable metal filter that can replace the paper filters. I found mine pretty easily and I live in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, having tried the same coffee in the same coffee maker using paper filters and the reusable metal filter, I think the metal filter makes a more flavorful cup, so this is ultimately a win-win.

Of course that’s not the entire story. First, the perforated metal isn’t as effective of a filter as paper and can’t be. You may end up with some sediment in the resulting cup because of it, but there are a few work-arounds. The first would be to get a better grinder. This does involve a bit of expense as grinders that create a more even grind and less dust are expensive, but there are actually some really good hand-powered models out there that are reasonable. Still, getting a new grinder isn’t a great option if you’re like me and have one that still works perfectly well. After all, replacing functioning equipment is not the way of The Greenists.

If buying a grinder isn’t an option (or you just don’t grind your own), you’ll need another way to deal with the sediment if it bothers you. One way is to let the coffee sit before pouring. After a few minutes, the fine coffee dust settles to the bottom of the pot and tends to stick together so you can pour most of the coffee off without any issue. The same goes for your cup. Let it sit for a few minutes to cool and then just don’t drink the last sip or two at the bottom of the cup. If you’re like me, however, and can’t even bring yourself to waste that much, after about halfway through the cup, swirl the coffee a little before each sip. There won’t be enough sediment in the cup to notice it this way. It’s only the fact that it settles out and ends up all being in the last sip that makes it annoying to start with.

As for cleaning your reusable filter, just tap out the spent grounds into your compost pot, rinse out the filter to get the stuff that sticks, and put the filter back in your coffee maker. Other than that, just clean the filter when and how you normally clean the rest of your coffee maker.

If you want to experiment a little with methods other than the regular drip coffee maker, some of the paperless options are considered superior brewing methods by coffee geeks (and I use geek as a compliment as I am one.) The French press or plunger pot is a great method. You add the ground coffee to the pot (using a medium coarse grind if grinding your own) and heat the water separately to 195-205 degrees F (not boiling). Add the hot water to the pot, let sit for three minutes, stir, and after three more minutes, press the plunger. This lowers the metal filter that presses the grounds to the bottom of the pot separating them from the liquid. You may have some sediment issues with this method (depending on how well ground the coffee is) just like the reusable drip filter, and that can be handled the same ways. This does require a little more attention than a drip maker, but it is an extremely easy method of brewing coffee.

The last method is one I really want to try. The vacuum method involves two pots, one upside down on top of the other. The coffee is placed in the top. Water is placed in the bottom where it is heated. Pressure from the steam forces the hot water into the top pot with the coffee. Then the heat is killed, the cooling process creates a vacuum that sucks the brewed coffee back down into the bottom pot. I have no personal experience with this method so I cannot speak to any issues with sediment, but it is really cool.

There is always the option of a percolator, but honestly, percolators make horrible coffee. I’m trying to help you get rid of the paper without making crappy coffee. If you’re willing to drink bad coffee, you may want to quit caffeine for a while. You don’t have to worry about filters at all that way.


  1. Wow. That all sounds like a lot of work. My paper filters go into the compost pile with the coffee grounds.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 1:41 pm
    Comment by Abby
  2. I have debated the need to switch to a reusable filter. I too use unbleached paper filters, but place the used filter and grounds right into the compost pail. I have tried to justify this because of the water I’m saving by not having to wash a filter every day, but deep down I know that doesn’t justify the water and energy used to manufacture and transport the paper filters.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 1:48 pm
    Comment by min hus
  3. Takes me as long to rinse out the filter as it does for me to peel off the next paper filter. Sometimes less if the paper ones are being annoying, although I admit the french press is more of a weekend/freelancer coffee thing. Probably the same for the vacuum pot.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 5:18 pm
    Comment by Jacob
  4. We usually go with the French press method here, but we add a pinch of salt when we put the lid on, and it gets only four minutes before the plunge.

    If we really want to do drip (for larger groups, for example), we have a pot (I think from Westinghouse) that lets you make 18 cups, with an upper chamber to pour the hot water into — over the built-in metal filter in the bottom of the chamber — so it drips down into the pot/carafe at the bottom. No filters to clean.

    I DO still use coffee filters occasionally, but only for straining out my pysanky dyes when I reboil them. So I go through about eight filters every three to six MONTHS.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 5:23 pm
    Comment by Stefka
  5. I use a metal filter and under it, I use one fourth of a bandana. I cut a bandana to make a cloth filter just for that extra filter issue. So now, I dump my grounds for the compost, I rinse my bandana, and let it dry on the dish strainer, and I am ready to brew again the next day. When my filter eventually wears out, I have three more ready to use.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 5:54 pm
    Comment by katieb
  6. I don’t drink coffee, but I always assumed you could compost the filters. That’s what I do with tea bags. I suppose that it still adds up financially to buy all those coffee filters though.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 6:32 pm
    Comment by Jessica
  7. Katieb, I like your idea. A lot actually. Backpackers are also huge fans of using bandanas for things.

    January 3rd, 2012 at 8:39 pm
    Comment by Jacob
  8. Nice post, Jacob. I am a big fan of our French press. It makes the perfect amount of coffee for two people, and there’s no waste involved (except the container that the coffee came in, I suppose.)

    January 4th, 2012 at 11:25 am
    Comment by courtney
  9. Our coffee maker came with a wire filter, and I’ve dealt with the sediment, but I’m REALLY loving Katieb’s bandana idea.

    January 5th, 2012 at 11:09 pm
    Comment by Allie
  10. My hubby uses a French press every morning. There is a little sediment, but most of it sinks to the bottom. Grounds go in the compost!

    January 6th, 2012 at 3:05 am
    Comment by Wombat Central
  11. French press is good and quick. Vacuum takes some technique but makes outstanding coffee.

    Espresso also doesn’t use a filter. You can make it with a machine or on the stovetop with a moka pot.

    I suppose Turkish coffee also doesn’t use a filter but can be messy if you don’t pay attention.

    January 9th, 2012 at 12:50 pm
    Comment by bennybrew
  12. My French press is my favorite kitchen tool, an I use it daily. A superior cup of Joe, and eco-friendly. Use the grounds in my compost.

    January 14th, 2012 at 10:54 pm
    Comment by Katherine
  13. I’d LOVE to find a reusable filter for my 4-5 cup Mr. Coffee brewer, but as of yet, have had no luck. Open to suggestions by all please .. with thanks!

    January 16th, 2012 at 1:21 pm
    Comment by CATherine
  14. I once bought a coffee maker at a thrift store just because it had a wire filter in it that fit my own machine. I can’t remember what I did with the extra machine.

    I’ve long since switched to a press. I think Abby (the first commenter) says it sounds like a lot of work just because you actually bothered to describe the individual steps (sort of how the English once published a manual describing the proper way to brew tea that ran to something like 600 pages.) Since I’ve been using a press, I get frustrated with all the steps required when I’m somewhere using a drip machine.

    January 25th, 2012 at 3:21 pm
    Comment by mickey

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