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Because You Asked

How Clean Do My Recyclables Need to Be?

By Recyclebank |

Cleaning is important, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

Dear Recyclebank: I used to assume that all recyclables were thoroughly cleaned at the recycling plant. I didn’t want to waste water if the plastics, cans, etc., would go into a hot bath or be pressure washed. In your articles, it says it’s not okay to put paper products with food residue in the recycling. What about other more washable material such as plastics and metals? If they’re not “clean enough”, are they sent to the landfill instead of being recycled? And what is clean enough? –Jeannie S.

Dear Jeannie: It’s important to consider your local recycling system when trying to figure out your strategy. If your handler uses a single-stream process, where all materials are collected in the same bin and sorted at the facility, then food on anything you throw in the bin is a potential problem. Residue on a glass bottle, metal can, or plastic tub could be transferred to paper products, making the paper unrecyclable and landfill-bound. Dual-stream recycling, where different materials get their own bins, is more forgiving.

Municipalities also have different expectations as to how much rinsing they expect you to do. You are right that facilities have extensive cleaning processes, so a bit of sauce left in a jar probably isn’t the end of the world. Keep in mind, though, that there is a bit of a budget-balancing issue: Clean and uncontaminated recyclables have the potential to fetch a lot more money on the market — an important part of ensuring that your local program can meet its budget — but the harder the facility needs to work to clean the recyclables, the more its processing costs can add up. So while dirty plastics and metals may not get sent to a landfill, they don’t earn their keep in the recycling process, which can in turn make recycling infeasible.

The moral of the story? Know what your handler expects and do your best to comply, and you’ll save everyone money in the long run. If you’re still worried about wasting water when cleaning your recyclables, check out our greener cleaning tips here.

EcoMyths Alliance
Mother Jones



How do you keep your recyclables tidy? Let us know in the comments below!

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Cindy W. 4 years ago
    Stick cans in small tub of soapy water than rinse. Some just rinse.
  • tommy b. 5 years ago
  • Janet R. 5 years ago
    rinse in soapy water overnight for cans of food works great
  • TheConnoisseurOfClean-com C. 5 years ago
    I always remove the paper labels from my tin cans and wash them out as well. Some items can just be put in the top rack of the dishwasher if you have space. This saves a little bit of trouble and gets the container clean.
  • Nancy S. 5 years ago
    We always clean as much food/residue off containers as we can. I am wondering about labels on glass jars though - we don't always get those off. How much impact does that have?
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