Recycling Mystery: Metal Lids & Bottle Caps

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When discarding plastic bottles, many recycling services now prefer you screw plastic tops on before dropping empties in the bin. What do you do with the metal lids on bottles and jars?

With glass, rules are usually different. We pause to note that it is always wise to ask your recycling service provider for specific instructions. Recycling practices are not universal and requirements vary — including what to do with lids from glass jars and bottles.

With that said, below are some answers you may encounter if you ask what to do with tops-on glass containers.

  • Remove metal lids from jelly, mustard, and other jars.
  • Remove aluminum twist-off tops from wine, olive oil, and sparkling water bottles.
  • If you’re inclined to press the ridged metal caps back on beer and soda bottles, don’t.

Mixed Recycling No-No’s

After dropping empty, lid- and cap-free glass containers into your recycling bin, what do you do with the metal caps and lids?

Metal is definitely recyclable. But lids and caps are often undesirable in mixed recycling — with some exceptions — because most equipment doesn’t efficiently sort and separate them.

During sorting, caps and lids often wind up with glass shards, explains Robert Pickens of the Oklahoma Recycling Association. When the glass is shipped off for processing, mixed in metal adds extra weight and may boost the transportation expense, he says.

At the glass processing facility, depending on its equipment and practices, the metal might be collected for recycling. Or, it might simply be discarded.

Wide-mouth metal jar lids with a minimum diameter of 2 or 3 inches may be an exception, even if other metal lids are not accepted in mixed recycling, notes Pickens. Among the providers accepting 3-inch lids in mixed recycling, at least in some of its service areas, is Waste Management. Three-inch lids usually are able to sort properly with other metals, a Waste Management spokeswoman explains.

Metal Recyclers Usually Want Them

Metal recyclers typically accept — and often buy — lids and caps from the public.

“Metals are some of the more valuable materials in the recyclable stream,” says Kent Kiser, publisher of Scrap, the bimonthly magazine of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Metal recyclers often accept metal lids and caps. Photo: American Metal Recycling

Metal recyclers often accept metal lids and caps. Photo: American Metal Recycling

American Metal Recycling in Ohio pays for steel and aluminum drop-offs. It would welcome metal lids and aluminum caps, explains supervisor Scott Hudack. He continues, “I think everything we do to save our environment is a step in the right direction.”

American Metal Recycling pays per pound of eligible material. Depending on the market, the payout is usually 5 cents to 9 cents for steel and about 35 cents to 45 cents for food-grade aluminum, according to Hudack.

A well-intentioned person who would need to drive a significant distance to drop off a small amount of caps at a metal recycler might want to evaluate whether recycling the metal is worth the environmental impacts of a road trip.

What About the Coating Inside the Lid?

Today, most metal caps and lids have an inside coating where the metal would otherwise come into contact with container’s contents. But this non-metal coating doesn’t necessarily mean that these items won’t be accepted by metal recyclers. Pickens says that coatings usually are not an issue, because they burn off when the metal is melted. 

Sheldon Hoffman, owner of American Metal Recycling, said acceptability of a metal lid with a non-metal coating— such as rubber, plastic or other material — would depend on the material, whether that material needed to be removed, and if removing that unwanted material would be worth the effort to reclaim the metal. 

My Provider Can’t Take Loose Caps and Lids

If your recycling service doesn’t accept loose metal caps and lids in your curbside bin, ask your provider if this technique would be acceptable: Drop caps and lids into cans of matching metal (for example, steel lids into steel cans and aluminum caps into aluminum cans). That way, the small lids and caps will pass through the automated sorting process without dropping out prematurely. 

To make jar-lid recycling work, you need to follow a few guidelines:

  • Don’t mix metals, which are usually differentiated by whether they’re magnetic. “It would not be acceptable to a metal processor to place an aluminum cap in a steel container … or the other way around,” Pickens says.
  • Don’t flatten cans or containers because automated sorting equipment usually identifies objects by weight and dimension, cautions Pickens. A three-dimensional object needs to remain three-dimensional to be recognized for what it is and sorted properly.  Pinch just the top to hold the caps in the larger container.

If your curbside provider doesn’t accept metal lids and caps at all, your next bet is to find a nearby metal recycling facility.  And to avoid wasting a trip, call to confirm they’ll accept your items before you make the delivery.

Ideas for Repurposing

Some artists, including Eric Henderson of Eric’s Easel on Etsy, devise colorful mosaics using bottle caps.

Mahi Mahi Fish Art Bottlecap Metal Wall Dolphin Fish by Eric's Easel

Mahi Mahi Fish Art. Image: Eric’s Easel on Etsy

Chelsea Odum, education and program coordinator for Resource Depot, a nonprofit creative reuse center in Florida, offered a few other crafty ideas. Decorate the inside of the lids or caps with paint, photos, or other embellishments. Drill a hole and hang them as ornaments. Glue on a pin-back and wear. Or glue onto a magnet and pop them on the refrigerator.

Odum also suggests making kid-friendly musical instruments. Caps offer a pleasant rattling sound. Or stretch rubber bands of different sizes and tensions around a lid for a guitar-like instrument for youngsters.

Speaking of art, assorted lids are perfect as a palette for squirting dabs of paint during an art project.

Do you have other uses for repurposed metal bottle caps and lids? Share your images and ideas with the community on the Earthling Forum.

Feature image by Donations_are_appreciated on Pixabay

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Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.