Does plastic have to be clean to recycle

  • By: greenorb
  • Date: October 30, 2021
  • Time to read: 4 min.

There isn’t much an average person can realistically do to help the environment, but one thing we can do is recycle. 

It may seem like there’s nothing to it, but there are some common questions. 

One such common question is: “does plastic have to be clean to recycle?”

You do need to clean any plastic that you plan to recycle because messy recyclables can disrupt the recycling process or make other items unrecyclable. 

How clean does plastic need to be?

All perfectionists reading this, take a deep breath. 

Plastic does not have to be spotless for recycling. 

There can be bits of dirt or other imperfections.

What’s important when cleaning plastic is making sure that it won’t affect other recycling. 

Waste Management Inc. has a brief overview of good recycling practices here.

In general, there are three aspects to look for when checking if your plastic is clean enough to recycle.

  • Is the plastic empty of its original contents?
  • Is it wet?
  • Is it greasy?

The first point may seem obvious. That year-old plastic pudding container sitting in your pantry can be recycled, but the pudding inside cannot. Make sure to remove the contents if it is a plastic container.

This point also covers any other waste. If there is a mess on the outside of the item, you’ll need to rinse that too.

Don’t forget to put the lids back on containers! Modern sorting processes are able to separate and sort lids of containers made with different plastics.

The second point applies to bottles, but also anything you’ve rinsed. Just before putting it in your recycling bin you should either drip or towel dry the recycling.

If you recycle with curbside pickup and there’s a possibility for rain, do your best to prevent your recycling from getting wet. 

Bins with lids work well. 

If your bins are uncovered, keep them inside until just before pickup.

Thirdly, don’t put greasy plastic in with your recycling. 

Grease can be annoying and difficult to remove. Luckily, it’s a bit easier on plastic.

Again, it doesn’t have to be spotless. As long as the majority of any grease is removed it is clean enough.

Once you’ve double-checked that your plastic passes all three checks, you’re ready to recycle!

Why do you rinse recyclables?

You may be asking yourself why this matters. After all, what harm can a bit of yogurt do? It’s a valid question.

It’s true that a bit of liquid or food waste won’t affect plastic or glass recycling. What it will affect is paper and cardboard recycling.

If recycling isn’t separated by type for the entire process, it will interact. 

For separation to work, the recycling would have to be sorted before collection, transported by type, then processed entirely separately. It can be done but isn’t as common.

In most cases, people collect their recycling in one general bin. 

If they do sort, it is pointless if the recycling collection does not. 

This is most often the case with curbside pickup.

This trip from pickup to the recycling plant is where most of the mingling will occur. 

At the plant, the recycling will be separated, but by that point, the paper and cardboard may be ruined.

This recycling method is called single-stream recycling.

So, your plastic is going to be on top of someone else’s paper recycling. 

If your recyclables aren’t rinsed, they could dirty the other recyclables. If the paper gets especially soaked or dirtied it will become unrecyclable.

The same goes for cardboard although it is a little more resistant to ruining.

How to reduce water waste when cleaning plastic

Now that we’ve established it’s important to clean plastic before recycling, let’s explore how to do it well. 

Since the goal of recycling is to help the environment, it would be counterproductive to create waste at the same time.

There are four basic ways to wash your plastic recyclables without increasing your water usage.

One great way to reduce water usage is to use the leftover sink water at the end of washing dishes. 

Unless the water is unusably dirty, it should clean the plastic to an acceptable level.

Since plastic doesn’t have to be squeaky clean, you can afford to miss a few spots. 

If the item is a container with a lid, you can put a small amount of water inside then shake vigorously.

If you have a dishwasher and happen to have extra space, fill it with your plastic recyclables. 

A few extra items won’t affect your dishes and your plastic will be good to go after.

Depending on the item being cleaned and how dirty it is, you could also forgo the use of water entirely. 

Scraping off the gunk or using a washcloth will work as well.

Final thoughts

There is a lot of doom and gloom in the news about the environment. 

If there was any time to improve the way we recycle it’s certainly now.

As simple as it sounds to wash and dry your plastic recyclables, it can make a big impact. 

Each person that can change their recycling habits will only multiply that effect. 

Switching to a dual-stream recycling process would help even more.

So do what you can to help. 

Hopefully, this article has provided useful methods for cleaning your plastic recyclables. We’ll all keep doing what we can.

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