Ever pause when washing out containers for recycling to wonder if one dirty container really does ruin the whole batch?

containers.jpg Every time I have a dirty container to recycle, I make sure to thoroughly wash out all the stains, grease and whatever mess may be sticking to the container’s insides. If there’s no way to wash the mess out, I always pause before throwing the container out. If a container is dirty, does it belong in the recycling bin, or should I be putting it in the trash? So now I’m asking: Is this confusion really necessary? What is the difference between recycling a crystal clean glass jar instead of a jar stained with marinara and mold? It’s okay to not know exactly what to do – a lot of people are unclear about specific recycling regulations in their neighborhood. What makes it even tougher is that the rules really do differ from place to place. Here’s the difference of rules between a few cities:

Chicago

In Chicago, you don’t need to rinse any materials, including containers, before sending them off to recycling. This is thanks to its single-stream recycling system in which materials are separated and cleaned at the recycling site. This process makes recycling an all-around easier experience for Chicago’s residents.

Denver

According to EcoMyths, the residents of Denver only have to rinse roughly 30 percent of their containers, such as cartons for milk and juice and jars of peanut butter. This is common for many cities where rinsing containers may not be required but is recommended.

San Francisco

On the other hand, all containers in San Francisco must be rinsed out. So why do the services differ from city to city? Why do we not have a consistent system for our messy recyclable containers? Well, every recycling service is different. While some services have single-stream systems, others may not be able to stay on top of separating all recyclable materials. But thankfully, according to Eric Masanet, a Northwestern University Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory professor and researcher, this is not something you should spend too much time fretting about. What happens if you forget to rinse out a container before sending it off to recycling? Will it end up in a landfill at the end? It has been said before that one dirty item in the system can ruin all the recyclable items around it. Could unrinsed containers be one of the culprits? According to Masanet, not really. Recycling services usually have people or machines to sort and clean all items as necessary. This is because some recyclables, such as plastics, can be so easily contaminated that items usually need to be checked out anyway. There is also the issue of how much water is wasted if we tirelessly rinse out our containers with water from our sinks (this is particularly salient for those affected by the California drought). Households could regularly waste gallons of water if they are constantly scraping away to make their containers crystal clean for recycling. However, one problem can arise if the containers are not rinsed. When recyclables are contaminated, their market value decreases quite a bit, which means the recycling service provider has less money to spend on improving their services. So even though remembering to rinse out your containers will not be detrimental to your nearby recycling service, it is best to keep that duty in mind.

Is there a clearer solution?

There are a couple different ways to avoid either wasting water or sending contaminated recyclables to your nearest facility.

Cut down your packaging

It may be easier said than done, but if you are determined to help the environment, buying less containers in general is a great solution. Instead of buying salad in a container, buy a fresh lettuce head. Instead of buying drink containers, try making your own in a pitcher. This takes away the worry of recycling and landfills as a whole.

Rinse with used dishwater

There’s no reason why our dirty recyclable containers need to be washed with fresh, clean water. Collect water in your sink that was used for dishes and other items, and use this water to rinse! That way, you’re making sure to not waste water while doing the best thing for your local recycling service.