Washing glass jar in sink

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.

If you have mixed recycling, be sure to let these items dry out before you put them in the bin with your other recyclables.

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. (Update: A 2020 study found that some grease in a pizza box does not negatively affect the recycled fiber. As a result, some municipalities will now accept pizza boxes for recycling. Please follow your local recycling guidelines.)

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. Same for wet and moldy paper. Make sure that all of the paper and cardboard in your recycling is dry and relatively clean.

Additionally, crumpled, torn, or misshapen paper and cardboard can be recycled the same as flat products. However, paper that has been shredded or torn into bits shouldn’t go directly into your recycling bin. Not only could it easily blow away and cause littering, but it would also make a mess at the material recovery facility where they sort your recyclables. Check with your recycling provider for local guidelines on shredded paper. It may not be accepted for recycling curbside or you may need to put the shredded paper inside a paper bag before placing it into your recycling bin.

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 stuck to a sandwich bag, wash it 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.

Note that in most cases, you cannot put plastic bags and plastic film in your curbside bin as they will jam the machinery at the recycling facility. However, you can find bins to drop off your plastic bags for recycling in many supermarkets and big-box stores. As always, please check your local recycling guidelines.

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.

Originally published on May 25, 2017, this article was updated in August 2021.

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By 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.