Myth: You Must Rinse All Containers Before Recycling Them, Or Else…

Myth: You Must Rinse All Containers Before Recycling Them, Or Else... Cartoon: Jim Hunt
On the scale of embarrassing recyclables, with 10 being rash ointment tubes and 1 being...well, less potentially blush-inducing stuff…how would you rank a container that hasn't been rinsed? It's a confusing question, with requirements varying across the map. But the solution is easier than some may think.
Posted by Daisy Simmons on

No Shame in Not Knowing Rinsing Protocol

It’s time we had a little talk. Sometimes in life, we have dirty things we want to, ahem, recycle. This can mean we have to rinse containers before recycling them…except for when we don’t. Sound as clear as mud? It pretty much is, considering the need to rinse really depends on the recycling provider in your area.

Chicagoans, for example, are off the hook for rinsing, according to this handy guide. Denverites don’t need to rinse all containers—just roughly 30 percent of them, like milk, juice, yogurt, and peanut butter containers. Memphis does not require rinsing, but does recommend it for plastic bottles and steel cans. Meanwhile in San Francisco, “all materials should be rinsed prior to recycling.”

Fortunately the answer in other areas is just a click away, thanks to Earth911′s recycling database, also available by app, which has compiled nationwide guidelines by zip code.

Just enter your zip code into the Earth911 database and voila, the local do's and don'ts are revealed.

Just enter your zip code into the Earth911 database and voila, the local do’s and don’ts are revealed.

Why do the service requirements differ so much? And what happens if you don’t follow your local guidelines? We posed those and other questions to Eric Masanet, PhD, a Northwestern University Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory professor and researcher, and editor-in-chief of science journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling. His short take: It’s smart to follow the rinsing guidelines in your area, but not necessary to stress if you sometimes forget.

Contamination Concerns, Exposed

One big FAQ from people whose recycling service recommends rinsing is what happens when you forget to do it. Will your jar/bottle/can/what-have-you end up in a landfill anyway? It’s a valid question given that Waste Management, which manages half the country’s curbside recycling programs, states on its website that one dirty item can contaminate thousands of pounds of collected plastics.

But the fact that an item is contaminated doesn’t relegate it to landfill status, explains Masanet. The recycling facility will use a mix of people and machines to sort then purify or clean everything according to type. Metal is the least sensitive to contaminants, he says, while plastic is so easily contaminated that even residue from a label can alter its chemistry and affect the quality of the recycled material in the end—exactly why recycling facilities have robust cleaning processes in place.

The real downside of dirty recyclables is that contaminated recycled material has less market value—which means the recycling service provider has less to spend on things like improving service and technology. So even though the recycling police won’t arrest you for not rinsing, Masanet advises complying with local guidelines so that the system is most efficient.

Curious about how recycling works once it leaves your bin? Take this video tour of a single stream recycling facility in Philly, courtesy of Waste Management, the country’s largest recycling provider.

Hidden Costs of Water Use?

Another concern people have is that rinsing recyclables wastes too much water. Generally though, Masanet recommends recycling as an “environmental slam dunk,” for saving energy, resources, and pollution. Even when considering water use on your end and at the recycling center, recycling almost always leads to energy savings when we consider the water needed to produce virgin glass, steel, plastic, or aluminum.

Working with data from various sources, Masanet is able to draw some interesting conclusions.

  • For steel and aluminum, it takes 3-10 times as much water to produce virgin metals as it does to recycle them. In other words, even extensive rinsing won’t reverse the water benefits of recycling. (Supporting intel comes from EERE and the Aluminum Association.)
  • For glass, the water use of recycled glass is closer to that of producing standard glass, but still, we’re likely to save 1-2 pints of water for every glass pint bottle recycled. Conclusion: Prudent rinsing should preserve the water benefits of recycling. (Info from a WRAP report.)
  • For PET and HDPE plastics, they are thoroughly washed as part of the recycling process given that they are sensitive to contaminants. Different life cycle analyses and different recycling processes lead to different conclusions about how much water recycled plastics save, with a range of negligible water savings to more than 30 liters for recycling a one-liter bottle. Masanet’s verdict: prudent rinsing is not likely to negate the water savings of recycling plastics, but reckless rinsing might. (Via WRAP.)

A huge point to keep in mind, reminds Masanet, is that saving water is only one of the many benefits of recycling. We also save energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution to air and water. “So, even if we occasionally use more water than we should, the other environmental benefits really make recycling a slam dunk.”

Uncovering the Basic Tips

To rinse or not to rinse may have no black and white answer, but here are a few general pointers:

  • Empty is preferable: It’s greener to consume or at least trash the food/drink/cleaning product in containers before recycling them. In addition to attracting vermin and upping the ick factor in your bin for the brave personnel who have to handle it, excess debris in your recycling bin requires extra energy to clean and dispose.
  • Rinsing for single-stream recycling: Combined bin peeps, it’s a good call to err on the side of rinsing, since paper and cardboard are especially sensitive to residue. If nothing else, though, it is important to dump all liquids out of containers to help keep the paper goods recyclable.
  • Conserve H2O when you rinse: Scrape food out first with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, then swish a little bit of water around in the container versus letting it sit under a running faucet. If you have several containers to rinse at once, just fill up a bowl and use the same water for the whole job.

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Partially Busted

You do not have to rinse all containers prior to recycling. That said, there are many instances where a good rinse is the right thing to do. Emptying containers and rinsing when it seems appropriate will help make the whole process more economical. The key thing is to find out best practices in your area and follow them as well as you can.

Do One Green Thing

OneGreenThing-rinsing-recyclablesType your zip code into Earth911′s curbside recycling guide for the simple do’s and don’ts in your area.

More ways to help:

  • Empty all containers prior to recycling them, to help keep paper and cardboard nice and dry.
  • Rinse conservatively–no need to go all Mr. Clean on that milk carton when a simple swish of water will do the trick.
  • Reduce use in the first place, as suggested by Masanet. How? Opt for items in bulk where possible.

The Multiplier Effect

If more people recycle their beverage containers, we’ll redirect salvageable stuff from the landfill and save resources needed for new material production. Here are three cool cases in point from the EPA: 1.) Five 2-liter recycled PET bottles produce enough fiberfill to make a ski jacket. 2.) Recycling one soda can save enough energy to run a computer for three hours. 3.) The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.

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Posted by Daisy Simmons on

4 Responses

  1. Karen says:

    Why not rinse your recyclables when you wash the dishes and save the water you run to get it hot enough to use.

  2. Stephanie says:

    What about those darned peanut butter jars? They are so hard to clean out! It takes so much scraping, soaking & resoaking, & scrubbing to get the peanut butter out. It sticks to the jar like glue! Seems so much water is wasted cleaning them. Also heard to remove lids, so I do. Should I keep doing that? So do all traces of PB need to be cleaned out of jars first before recyling?

  3. Andy says:

    Well scrap the jars before washing and wash peanut butter jars and such in dirty dishwater or in with your regular dishes if you use a dishwasher. The peanut butter that isn’t 50% vegetable shortening is easier to clean the jars after you’re done but they also tend to be glass jars so that helps.

    Compare that to Nutella and similar plastic jars that seem engineered to have you throw away one or two servings of peanut butter.

  4. Jimi says:

    If you’re worried about removing Peanut Butter out of its plastic container, then maybe you should think about how hard it is to remove from your body……….

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