How to Recycle Plastic Caps & Lids
The recycling community has debated for years over what to do with plastic bottle caps. The plastic industry has even weighed in, trying to set general rules, but every local recycling program has its own preferences.
Much of the confusion with caps stems from the fact that they are made of a different plastic resin than the bottle or jug they secure. Most caps are made of polypropylene (#5 plastic), with some (like sports drink bottles) composed of high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic). Plastic bottles and jugs are typically #1 or #2 plastic.
Plastic Cap & Lid Recycling Preparation
For plastic bottles, you need to ask your local recycling program whether caps are accepted before trying to recycle them with the bottle. Some will ask you to leave them on, some accept caps but want them separated, and some will ask you to throw them away.
For plastic containers (e.g. butter tubs, yogurt cartons), the lid is usually made of the same material as the base. If the container is #5 plastic, odds are strong that the lid is as well. In these cases, feel free to reattach the lid before recycling if your program accepts non-bottle plastics.
If your local recycling program doesn’t accept caps and you know they are made of polypropylene, consider the Preserve Gimme 5 program, where you can recycle all #5 plastics by mail.
Why Recycle Plastic Caps & Lids
A 2016 debris removal effort of Midway Atoll, an island with a population of less than 60 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (1,300 miles from Honolulu, the closest city), found almost 5,000 bottle caps; if not recycled, these caps travel a large distance and pose a danger to marine life because of their small size
Plastic caps don’t biodegrade, meaning it will take hundreds of years for them to decompose in a landfill
In America, we use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour, and every one of them is manufactured with a cap
Plastic Cap & Lid Recycling Process
Assuming you left the cap on the bottle, the first step in the recycling process is to separate the bottles and caps into their individual resins. The material recovery facility (MRF) will use a pressurized system to expel caps and flatten bottles. Plastics are then soaked in water, where the bottle (made of #1 plastic) will sink and the cap (#2 or #5 plastic) will float.
Recyclers will shred the #2 or #5 plastic into flakes, which are washed, rinsed and dried. Flakes are then melted into pellets, which are transported to a manufacturer to make new plastic caps or other materials, such as casing for car batteries, storage containers or reusable plastic bags.
Frequent Plastic Cap & Lid Recycling Questions
- 10 Things You Can Recycle Through the Mail: Caps are just one item for which mail-in recycling is an option in the U.S.
- Ocean Protection Group Offers Bottle Cap Recycling Contest: A Northeastern U.S. campaign attempted to keep bottle caps out of the water
- Recycling Mysteries: #5 Plastics: Learn more about the resin used to make most plastic caps