EcoMyths: Rinsing before recycling?

October 29, 2013

Kate Sackman

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Contents of a recycling bin at the Casella Waste Systems depot in East Montpelier, Vt. Vermont.

To Rinse or Not To Rinse: A Recycling Mystery Solved

At EcoMyths, people ask us all the time about recycling. One of the most frequently asked questions is “Do you need to rinse all containers before tossing them into the recycling bin?” That’s a great question and have often wondered that ourselves. To explore this issue on our EcoMyths segment on Worldview, Jerome McDonnell and I talked with engineering professor and researcher Eric Masanet, PhD, of Northwestern University.The good news is that more than half of Americans, 58%, say they recycle on a regular basis. Of the 4.5 lbs. of waste that we produce on average per person, each day, we recycle about one-third of it, according to the EPA. Not too shabby, considering how much of all that recycling reduces the amount of garbage going into landfills.

Most recycling programs in the U.S. co-mingle glass, plastic, aluminum and other recyclables into one bin. Then they are processed together in a single stream at the recycling plant. So Eric advises that most containers be emptied and rinsed out before you toss them into the bin. Yogurt still in the container? Rinse it first. Peanut butter still in the jar? Scoop out what is left, then rinse, before recycling. Why so serious? Because according to Waste Management, the company that collects half of all the curbside recycling in the U.S., a single dirty container can contaminate thousands of pounds of recyclables.

Water you talkin’ about?

We asked Eric if the extra water used to rinse out the containers would negate the environmental benefits of the recycling itself. He said that even with the water used both at home and at the recycling plant, there are significant water savings compared to what would be used to manufacture new containers from scratch.

Not only that, the environmental benefits of recycling go well beyond water savings, Eric says. Over the life of a product there are also significant energy savings. For instance, if your peanut butter container is recycled into plastic lumber, energy is saved because the upfront impact of extracting the oil or gas used to manufacture the plastic has been eliminated. In addition, no live trees need to be harvested to create the artificial lumber.

As a professor of materials and manufacturing that focuses on product life-cycle systems, Eric has much experience researching the economic and resource impacts that occur in manufactured products. A life cycle analysis starts from the time a raw material is mined, drilled, or harvested to the manufacturing and use of the product and until it is disposed of or recycled. Eric points out that when we recycle and re-purpose materials “we cut the loop short” of the lifecycle of a product, creating significant environmental benefits, not to mention the money that is saved.

That said, the rules regarding whether you need to rinse out your containers actually vary from city to city. It depends on who collects your recyclables and the capabilities of the facility where those items are recycled. Eric advised us to check on the regulations that apply to your city or town by going to www.Earth911.com.

I think that not only is Eric incredibly smart, but he makes it really easy to understand the environmental and economic impact of recycling.

To learn more about this myth, listen to the podcast of today’s show or go to the EcoMyths Alliance website to read more about how to rinse your recyclables.