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Should you rinse your recyclables?

To rinse, or not to rinse your recyclables. That is the question.

And if you do need to rinse, what about “sticky” stuff like yogurt that clings to the sides of the container?

You may have pondered these questions as you hovered indecisively over your bin, wondering if it’s OK to drop your containers in as-is. Especially if you’ve heard that the water usage takes away from recycling savings.

It used to be that some cities, such as Chicago, didn’t need residents to rinse their recyclables. They took on the job of cleaning materials themselves. But Chicago and more areas like it now ask residents to remove the bulk of food residue.

A quick rinse is fine—there’s no need to make it clean enough to eat off of. The heat process can burn off small amounts of stuck-on food. And to make the process even more earth friendly, you can even re-use dish water.

Single-stream challenges

If your community uses single-stream recycling, where all of your recyclable materials are put in one bin and separated at the recycling facility, there is another factor to consider, too.

Even if your unrinsed yogurt container, soda can or other residue-containing item is upright when you put it into the bin, after being dumped into the truck, bounced along for miles and compressed, there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere along the way whatever started off inside will come out.

That’s bad news for any paper or cardboard that might be on board. While a drop of yogurt might not make a huge difference, it adds up. And even a small bit of oil or grease (salad dressing, anyone?) can ruin the entire load of paper recyclables.

The bottom line: rinse recyclables, seriously

You don’t need to scrub those plastic and glass containers with soap and water to make them clean enough to eat off of. But taking a moment to give them a rinse, even if it’s just with dishwater runoff, will ensure that they end up getting processed. For more helpful tips and tricks on handling your household waste, download the Recycle Coach app for free. If your city’s a member of our network, we’ll hook you up with information customized to where you live.

27 Comments

  1. Nathan Schaper

    May 27, 2021 at 10:43 am

    Pictures would be a nice addition to this article, it is difficult to know exactly what you mean

    Reply
  2. Susan L Barker

    June 24, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    A number of recycling articles tell you to make sure plastic containers are dry. Why is that? What happens if they’re not completely dry, just a little bit damp.

    Reply
    • April

      June 25, 2021 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for your question Susan! The problem with wet containers really pertains to the contamination of other recyclable materials in the bin. If you have a bunch of paper or cardboard and you toss a wet container in, it will get those paper/cardboard products all soggy and my prevent them from being usable. Or if you have a container that has liquid closed inside of it, when the compactor crushes everything together, it will most likely break open and leak onto and ruin paper and cardboard products next to it.

      Reply
      • JJ

        March 27, 2022 at 2:52 pm

        What do we do in the rain. Everything will get wet? Is recycle activites halted during bad weather

        Reply
        • April

          April 18, 2022 at 6:36 am

          We can’t do much about items getting wet from rain, but hopefully you are able to keep most of your recyclables dry in a bin.

          Reply
    • K

      September 15, 2021 at 3:37 pm

      After some time it could produce mould

      Reply
      • April

        September 16, 2021 at 6:41 am

        Yes, that can be an issue for wet/moist containers and bottles. Once a truck drops off a load of recycling, it does not usually go directly through the sorting process. Often it will sit in a pile until it’s that pile’s turn to be sorted.

        Reply
  3. James Kuhn

    July 2, 2021 at 10:04 am

    Whether or not using recycled materials in place of non-recycled can actually save resources (and money) is pointless. The world’s population is exploding. Soon enough, there won’t be enough non-recycled materials to meet demand. Besides, it takes much less energy to recycle an item than it does to produce an item from scratch. Do I Have to Rin… Just Once, Do I Have To?

    Reply
    • April

      July 2, 2021 at 2:01 pm

      Thank you for your insight James. The carbon emissions from using recycled materials versus virgin materials is almost always much lower, and often will save on costs in manufacturing.

      Reply
  4. Wanda

    July 8, 2021 at 10:04 pm

    Why do I have to pay for water to rinse out all my recycling?Where I live water isn’t free, I’m not making money off of it, the recycling centers are, let them pay for the water to rinse it.

    Reply
    • April

      July 9, 2021 at 7:25 am

      Great question. Some areas this is a problem, especially in places where there is water scarcity like in desert communities. You can definitely still dry wipe your containers to get as much residue off as possible if that is your situation. If you have some left over dish water, that is a great way to rinse your recyclables without adding to your water waste. You don’t have to soak and scrub or anything like that. The point is not to inconvenience yourself, but rather make your recyclable materials as usable as possible in the recycling process so they don’t contaminate the load.

      Reply
  5. Anita Rogers

    July 20, 2021 at 6:55 pm

    I know many seniors who just don’t understand the whole recycle thing. Also, I have seen my apartment supers empty the recycle bins into the garbage dumpsters. Last comment; I have affluent friends who don’t give a darn and put everything in the regular trash, including newspapers, plastic and glass. Thank you for a forum to express my frustration.

    Reply
    • April

      July 21, 2021 at 8:22 am

      Anita, recycling can get confusing at times and some people don’t see how their individual contribution can help overall. This can happen among any people, not just specific demographics. Continue to be a friendly advocate in your area and don’t give up hope. The more information we can share with others about recycling correctly and why it is important, the better. I know it can be frustrating to see people recycling incorrectly or not recycling at all, but I believe everyone has ways in which they try to help the environment, and it’s always good to assume best intentions. Happy recycling!!

      Reply
  6. Greg Boyd

    August 3, 2021 at 8:07 pm

    You should ask the workers at the recycling plant to let you know which items they get the most of that are not recyclable. You should then educate people on that item, or maybe even 5 items, per month.

    Reply
    • April

      August 4, 2021 at 2:25 pm

      Actually, we do offer educational services on our mobile app for participating municipalities. Our goal is to help municipalities educate residents how to recycle correctly. You can download The Recycle Coach app from google play or the app store to see if your area receives those features. Or check your municipality here https://recyclecoach.com/my-municipality/

      Reply
  7. Laura

    August 17, 2021 at 11:23 am

    I’m never sure how much to rinse out soap and laundry detergent bottles. I know that a lot of the rinsing is about preventing pests, but obviously, soap doesn’t pose that problem. At what point is it a terrible waste of water to get all the soap residue out of a laundry detergent container? And does this vary by municipality?

    Reply
    • April

      August 17, 2021 at 11:53 am

      Great question! Yes, this definitely varies by municipality. For example, some locations in desert areas may accept more product in a bottle because their concerns are more heavily focused on water conservation than recycling contamination. In many locations the hope is to have fairly cleaned out containers to avoid contaminating a load being recycled. With soap and detergents, I would say the goal is to not leave much thick goo left inside. It’s hard to get all the bubbles, but when a lot of slow moving detergent settles back down to the bottom of a bottle after it’s poured empty, that can cause a problem. I always just put a bit of water (maybe 1/2 cup or less depending on the size of the detergent bottle), put the cap back on, then shake it for 15 seconds or so. That way the majority of the excess goo is loose and dumps out easier.

      Reply
  8. John

    August 30, 2021 at 3:24 am

    So I’ve heard that trying to recycle shredded paper is pointless because it almost always gets ruined by water or something else. Is this true?
    Should we just be putting any paper products into a separate trash bag to protect it for the recycling process?

    If we can’t put items in our blue bin because it’s full (I live in a larger apartments complex) will it still get recycled if it gets put in a black bin? If not, should I just put the recyclables next to the blue bin?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • April

      September 7, 2021 at 3:38 pm

      To answer your first question, shredded paper usually has specific requirements based on where you are located as to how it is recycled. You can use the “What Goes Where” search tool on our mobile app if your municipality has it available or check your facility’s requirements on the waste management site for your area.

      As for your bins, if you put recyclable materials in your garbage waste, it will not end up at a recycling facility. Check with your local recycling facility to see how they accept additional materials once your bin is full.

      Reply
  9. Steve Holanov

    September 13, 2021 at 4:19 pm

    The how to recycle labels sometimes tell us to replace the cap (which is never recyclable) and sometimes discard it. However the cap will keep contamination away from other materials in our single stream collection. This is really a confusing situation.

    Reply
    • April

      September 14, 2021 at 8:22 am

      That’s a great point, and a confusing one too! Whether you should leave the caps on or off is actually dependent upon your location and what your specific recycling program accepts, not on what the label information gives you. You can check on the Recycle Coach app or you can contact your local facility to see what their rules are for caps and lids.

      Reply
  10. Annie

    September 14, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    Hello,

    I recently sealed my driveway and have about forty of those 5 gallon buckets. They all say #5 on the bucket and lid, however they were full of tar, so that’s dried in there. Recyclable or no? How clean should they be?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • April

      September 16, 2021 at 6:46 am

      Those large 5 gallon buckets are usually too big for the sorting machine, so they often are picked up with trash bulk items. You can always check on the What Goes Where search tool on the Recycle Coach app or check with your local municipality’s recycling facility to see if they would take them. Additionally, if they are covered in tar, they would contaminate a plastics load anyway so do not recycle them. If your location accepts them, they would have to be scraped clean first.

      Reply
  11. Lawrence

    October 11, 2021 at 10:58 am

    I have heard that plastics with colour (specifically black items) are not recyclable. Is this true?

    Reply
    • April

      October 12, 2021 at 6:25 am

      Yes, for the most part. Black plastics are often not accepted in recycling programs. There are a few areas that do accept it, but for the most part, there is not much of a market for black plastic because the pigment will mix with all the other plastics and any company that buys that post-consumer plastic will have to make their product in black because you can’t remove the color.

      Reply
  12. Arun

    June 3, 2022 at 3:36 am

    Where do the small bills and receipts go ? Depending on whether the bill is torn into few pieces or crushed, or remains as a whole bill, does it go in different bins accordingly ?

    Reply
    • April

      June 7, 2022 at 7:01 am

      Mostly receipts should go in the garbage. Many receipts are made from thermal paper, which is not typically accepted for recycling. Only bills that are 100% paper would be considered recycling, but regular paper is not the norm for bills and receipts. You should also not toss anything less that 2″ in diameter into recycling as the sorting machines can not deal with very small items. So if paper is ripped into bits, it is not suitable for recycling because it will just get lost along the way.

      Reply

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