Is it worth it to wash out your recyclables?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 3 2009 6:39 AM

Clean Jar, Clean Conscience?

The environmental pros and cons of washing out your recyclables.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I've always been dedicated to washing the peanut butter, Pepsi, and mayo out of my food containers before tossing them in the recycling bin. My sister, though, recently pointed out that I'm probably wasting gallons upon gallons of precious H 2 0! Is it worth it to soap up my tin cans and soda bottles?

Not really. Recycling facilities are well equipped to handle dirty cans and bottles, so some caked-on tomato sauce and the occasional stray chickpea won't significantly hinder the process. (These facilities can even handle that lime wedge you left in your Corona bottle.) Residue left on plastic or glass containers generally gets flushed out with water at some point in the process; most of the gunk left behind on steel and aluminum cans is burned away when those containers get melted down. So there's no need to waste water by running the faucet over your recyclables—even if you were to get them squeaky clean, they'd probably end up getting washed again, anyhow.

That being said, the Green Lantern doesn't advocate tossing cans and bottles immediately, and she really doesn't want you chucking half-full jars of mayonnaise or jelly. It's wasteful and it's just not sanitary—food scraps can lead to mold and bacteria growth, and the smell can attract insects and other vermin.

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Once you put your recyclables on the curb, they aren't processed right away. Let's say your local collection agency picks up your bins once every two weeks—that's already plenty of time for stuff to start spoiling and rotting. Then your cans and bottles go to a consolidation facility, where they're sorted and baled, usually within 24 hours of arrival. At this point, they might sit around in a warehouse for weeks or even months before they're sold to a reprocessing facility, where they'll be cleaned before getting ground up, melted down, or chipped into flakes. (These days, those bales might sit around even longer than usual—prices for recycled material have gone down significantly in the last several months, which means some sorting facilities may be holding onto their goods, waiting for prices to rise again.)

Now imagine your bottle of half-eaten, four-month-old tartar sauce, lounging about in a stuffy warehouse and getting riper by the day. Not pleasant, is it? As one recycling center worker put it: "It sure is appreciated when people take a minute or two to wash [their food cans] … it's a real day-wrecker when someone throws up because of the horrible smell."

So out of deference to the health and safety of America's recycling industry employees, the Green Lantern suggests the following course of action. First, scrape out as much food residue as you possibly can—the Lantern recommends using one of those skinny, flexible baking spatulas—and then swish out the can or bottle in your leftover dishwater. If you use a dishwasher, don't take up valuable real estate with items meant for the recycling bin. Just fill a bowl with water and use it to clean out any food particles, ideally from several containers at once.

Rinsing is an especially good idea if your community participates in single-stream recycling, where everything from newspapers to detergent bottles are placed in a single curbside bin. Paper is easily contaminated by oil and grease, which is why pizza boxes usually aren't accepted unless they're in pristine condition. If you're really concerned about making the recycling process as efficient as possible, read your community guidelines so that you're not overloading the system with nonrecyclable materials.

Rather than worrying yourself into a tizzy over how to clean out your Coke bottles, here's an even better idea: Why not try cutting down on packaging in general? Recycling is only the third R in the waste-management hierarchy, after all—reducing and reusing are even better. According to the EPA, Americans generated 254 million tons (PDF) of municipal solid waste in 2007. (That's everyday, nonindustrial trash.) Containers and packaging made up the biggest fraction of that waste—30.9 percent, or 78.4 million tons. Nearly half of that amount ended up being recycled, but it would be better if we had less packaging to begin with. After all, disposal is only part of the equation—there are also significant environmental costs that come with manufacturing those boxes, cans, and bottles. In fact, a widely cited 1992 study by the Boston-based Tellus Institute found that 99 percent of the environmental harm caused by packaging came from its production, not its disposal. Even when you factor in 17 years of greener design and fabrication, it's clear that reducing our dependency on individually wrapped single servings is a laudable goal. And—major bonus—if you don't buy it in the first place, you don't have to worry about cleaning it when you're done.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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