How Clean Must Your Recyclables Be?

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If you’ve taken up recycling, you’re already helping to make the world a greener place. But there are some essential tricks of the trade. A very common concern in the recycling realm is knowing how clean recyclables must be before you throw them in the bin.

Contaminants can ruin certain recycling processes, but do you really have to rinse all the sour cream out of the container before recycling? Is it different for each type of recyclable?

While guidelines vary by location, here’s a basic guide to help you determine the standard of cleanliness for your recyclables:

Rinse Jars, Bottles and Cans

As a general rule, for things like bottles and jars, a quick rinse is more than adequate. You don’t need to scrub the remains in the mayonnaise jar with soap before recycling, and a few spots won’t likely hinder the process.

For most items, just fill the container with water and vigorously swish the water around inside. (Or better yet, use leftover dishwashing water just before you drain it.) If the residue is sticky like jelly or honey, you may need to use a scrub brush or scraper to remove more of the product.

Cardboard and Paper Guidelines

Note that grease and oil make cardboard and paper unrecyclable, so pizza boxes covered in grease aren’t fit for the recycling bin. However, if the box is mostly clean with just a few specks of grease, you’re fine to recycle it.

The same goes for other contaminants. If you’re making pancakes and a drop of egg lands on the box, it’s still clean enough to recycle. However, too much of a mess will make it impossible to recycle.

Additionally, crumpled, torn or misshapen paper and cardboard can be recycled the same as flat products. As a side note, paper that has been shredded or torn into bits shouldn’t go into the outside bin, as it can easily blow away and cause littering. Check with your local curbside program for guidelines on shredded paper. In small quantities, it may need to be thrown away or at least bagged before being recycled. In large quantities, you can take it directly to any waste and recycling facility.

Shake Clean Plastic Bags

Plastic bags and film should be dry and clean of residue. Again, a few particles, such as bread crumbs, left in the plastic bag will not hinder the recycling process. In most cases, you can simply shake out bags before recycling them. This will easily take care of dry particles inside the bag.

If there is sticky film or residue, such as peanut butter or mustard left over in a sandwich bag, it must be washed out. After washing any plastic bags, make sure that the bags are dried completely before recycling, as excess water can interfere with the melting process during recycling.

Throw Away Heavily Soiled Items

Unfortunately, some items cannot be recycled and should simply be thrown away. Any items that are heavily soiled or impossible to clean cannot be recycled.

It’s very important to sort your recycling correctly and make the process as simple as possible for your city. If you need more information about the proper way to recycle products, contact your local recycling facility.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
How to Remove Labels and Odors from Food Jars
To Wash or Not to Wash: Taking Recycling for a Spin
3 Big Reasons “Wish-cycling” Is Always a Bad Idea

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Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer and business consultant who covers business, technology and entrepreneurship. She's lectured for several universities and worked with more than 100 businesses over the course of the past 15 years. She's a mother of two kids, and loves to go camping, hiking and skiing with her family.