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Because You Asked

How Can I Clean Recyclables Without Wasting Water?

By Recyclebank |

Clean recyclables or water conservation? You don’t have to pick one over the other!

Dear Recyclebank,

Rinsing recyclables uses a lot of water. I am in California and we are currently in a drought. Every drop counts! So now what?

-Dave C.


Dear Dave,

You are not alone in the recycling-vs.-water-conservation dilemma. Here at Recyclebank, we stress the importance of recycling right, which includes making sure only clean and dry recyclables go in the recycling bin. But lots of Recyclebank members have wondered about the environmental trade-off of rinsing recyclables in the sink when much of the country is experiencing drought.

It’s a great question, since conventional faucets use about 5 gallons of water per minute (gpm). That means just 1 minute of running water to blast the remains off peanut butter jars and takeout containers each day can add up to over a thousand gallons of water over the course of a year. Do we really need to be using so much drinkable water to clean our waste?

Ultimately, it is impossible to say if it’s better to conserve water or to recycle right, because these green actions have different but equally important impacts. Comparing the two is comparing apples to oranges. We think that it’s a misconception that we need to choose one or the other. There is a way to do both!

As we’ve discussed, it’s important to make sure recyclables are clean before setting them out for pickup. This prevents contamination of paper recyclables from messy plastic, metal, or glass that might drip during single-stream processing. Dirty recyclables also lead to mold and pests which pose health and sanitation risks. However, your containers do not need to be sparkling clean, which is good news for water conservation. We’ve got some tips for how to properly prep your recycling without sending valuable water down the drain.

Bottles containing liquids can be emptied and air-dried before being tossed in the bin, without needing an ounce of water. Wide-mouth containers with stickier foodstuff should be scraped or wiped out by hand using a fork, spatula, or dirty napkin, again avoiding the sink altogether.

If “dry cleaning” doesn’t get the job done and you need to use water, we recommend using graywater (lightly used water). Washing fruits/vegetables or dishes in a large bowl or tub will leave you with graywater perfectly suited for cleaning recyclables before going down the drain. Water can also be collected using a drain plug. Moisten a sponge with graywater for wiping out the muck; bottles with smaller openings that are tougher to wipe out can be filled with graywater, closed, and shaken until clean.

All of the above tips will help you avoid turning on the faucet just to clean recyclables. But you could also consider making an inexpensive improvement to your faucets for water and dollar savings, since they use more than 15 percent of our home water usage. Look for low-flow fixtures if yours is outdated and you’re looking to make an upgrade. Faucet aerators make a great, inexpensive alternative to fixture replacement. They can be found at your local hardware or home improvement store for less than $10 and are easy to screw right onto your faucet. These have been fine-tuned to reduce water flow to as little as 0.5 gpm (as much as 90% less than the conventional faucet) without reducing water pressure.

National Conference of State Legislatures
AM Conservation Group



Have more ideas that conserve water and enable clean recycling? Let us know in the comments!

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Aromal C. 2 years ago
    Even if i have to use 1 gallon water to clean the peanut butter jar, isn't it still better than leaving the jar to go in the landfill and waiting for 500 years for it to decompose? That 1 gallon water will anyway reach the earth and will become ground water and get naturally recycled, right?
  • Steven C. 4 years ago
    We should use our water as if there is a drought..........
  • Steven C. 4 years ago
    I put my dirty recyclables in the my sink as I wash my dishes by hand. The sink is plugged. When there is enough soapy water in the sink, I wash my recyclables....taking care that my clean dishes don't get the dirty sink water on them.
  • mary B. 4 years ago
    Rinsing recyclables" sit them out in a pour down of rain."
  • Johna D. 4 years ago
    Great article
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