Recycling right: how clean is clean enough?

Jars rinsed for clean recycling
Rinsed for recycling / My photo

Recycling has been in an uproar for a few years now, ever since China stopped accepting the world’s recyclables because of high contamination rates. We all need to put out clean recycling, but you may be wondering how clean is clean enough.

Most municipal recycling programs rely on single-stream recycling. That is, people mix paper, plastic, metal, and glass in one container. Some rely on drop-off centers, where people take their recyclables and sort them into separate bins when they get there. 

In recycling, contamination means anything that doesn’t belong in a bale of sorted materials. Some contamination can result from the sorting process. Most of it comes from careless consumers.

If bottles, cans, and jars still have food or other materials in them, they are contaminated by definition. That is, chocolate syrup is not plastic. It doesn’t belong in a bale of sorted plastic. What’s more, if chocolate (or ketchup or mayonnaise or even a few drops of root beer left in a can) can come out contaminate paper or cardboard. 

How to clean bottles, cans, and jars

empty tuna can. clean recycling
Rust Wiki via Flickr

So are we supposed to wash cans, bottles, and jars along with our dishes? You can, if you want, but it’s not necessary. Just rinse that recycling. 

In most cases, it’s enough to put some water in it and swish it around. Or put the lid back on it and shake if vigorously. Peanut butter or other sticky contents might require you to add some detergent and shake very vigorously—or just let that jar sit on the counter for a few hours before you pour the water out. If you wash any dishes by hand, use that water to clean your recycling. 

If anything remains on the outside—and particularly along the rim of a bottle or jar, wipe it with a damp dish cloth. 

Then, empty the water out and give it a shake to get the inside as dry as possible. When no droplets of water come out of the bottle, can, or jar, put it with your recycling.  Your local program most likely wants you to put the lid back on plastic bottles and jars. Be sure to know what your own program prefers.

Further thoughts on clean paper

pizza boxes. clean recycling
Pizza boxes / Wikimedia Commons

Oil and grease contaminate bales of paper (including cardboard and chipboard). It’s impossible to clean it away. And so it’s impossible to use that bale to make recycled paper. The paper will have grease spots on it.  

Most places, therefore, do not accept greasy pizza boxes. Donuts and muffins are also greasy, so don’t recycle the boxes they come in, either.

Now, if it has only a few spots, it still counts as clean recycling. The tops and sides of a pizza box may be just fine, but you’ll need to cut the greasy bottom away. Paper towels, napkins, wax paper, along with any kind of tissue, are not recyclable, either. You can either put these unwelcome papers in the trash or with your compost. 

Paper plates and paper cups, on the other hand, have a thin plastic coating. They are neither recyclable nor compostable. They must go in the trash. 

Shredded paper probably doesn’t belong with your recycling no matter how clean it is. Once it gets to the recycling center, it won’t stay with the rest of the paper. It will get into bales of everything else and become a contaminant.

I say probably because your local recycling program may have provisions for accepting it. It may allow you to put shredded paper in a paper bag. Or it may instruct you to put it in a clear plastic bag—the only plastic bag allowed in curbside recycling. In that case, the recycling center will have a presort crew that will remove the bags of shredded paper before they get into the equipment. Someone will hand carry it to the proper place for baling. 

Cleaning plastic bags

You can’t put plastic bags and films out to the curb with your other recycling. They get tangled in the sorting equipment. At best, the recycling center has to shut down its lines from time to time to get the tanglers out. At worst, they can destroy system components.

So take them to recycling containers at your grocery store, but like everything else, the bags have to be clean and dry. Shake out bread crumbs. If you want to recycle a sandwich bag that has a little mustard or peanut butter in it, treat it like a jar or bottle and rinse it off. 

Recycling is a manufacturing process that depends on clean recycling. All manufacturers require materials of a certain purity. They have chemists and other professionals to test every shipment of every material they use and reject whatever doesn’t meet their standards. They reject many contaminated bales of recyclables, which must then go to the landfill.

What’s more, food contamination of recyclables attracts vermin and threatens the health of the workers who collect, haul, and process recycling. So take the time to make sure your recyclables are empty, clean, and dry.   

Shop related products:

Alisy Household Bottle Brushes –
Glass Cup Cleaning Brush, for Cleaning Dishes, Mugs, Glass Tea Water Cups, Chinaware Porcelain Coffee Stains, Baby Bottles, Non-Stick Pot Pan Dish Bowl (B(2pcs))

100% Recycled Glass Textured Large Serving Bowl

What a Waste: Trash, Recycling, and Protecting our Planet [children’s book] / Jess French
Previous Post
Cooking for one on a budget: easy, eco-friendly meal ideas
Next Post
12 easy ways to live more sustainably at home


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Related Posts

Follow by Email