February 8, 2018

All the dirt on rinsing recyclables

Are you scraping, rinsing and scrubbing to get the last of the peanut butter out of the jar, just so it’s fit for recycling?

Doing the same for your applesauce, yogurt, pet food and chili?

With the possible exception of Go-gurt, technology still hasn’t developed packaging that allows you to actually eat every last bit of your food products. So isn’t expecting you to wash out bottles, tubs and cans a little bit like adding insult to injury?

How much recycling prep is enough? And how clean is clean? And what about water waste? True environmentalists know a kitchen sink can use up to five gallons of usable water per minute. Isn’t that worse than putting a dirty peanut butter jar in the landfill?

These are all good questions, but let’s start with the simplest answer: it depends on where you live.

Check with your municipal or regional waste removal company. Denver residents are asked to rinse 30 percent of containers, while the Recycle Memphis (TN) website makes sure to point out that while rinsing is recommended, it is not required. The cities of San Francisco and Portland, OR, are among those requiring all containers be completely rinsed.

Differences in recycling rules from town to town are usually the result of different processing equipment, not regional politics. If the recycling process gets the items hot enough, most of the excess food, like excess labels, gets burned away.

As far as conserving water, recyclers recommend scraping tough food residue with a fork, spatula or dirty napkin, or soaking first in “graywater,” which is lightly used water collected from washing vegetables, doing dishes or other basic tasks.

Items don’t have to be sterilized or completely free of grime. Just fill the container with water and vigorously swish the water around inside.

Want to know the real down and dirty? Recyclers don’t throw away containers just because they’re soiled. Workers separate clean and soiled recyclables into different bales. The cleaner they are, the more money they fetch on the market, while the lower quality bales bring in lower prices.

Food waste is a larger problem for paper and cardboard recycling.

Grease and oil make cardboard and paper un-recyclable, so unfortunately, a grease-covered pizza box is considered trash. Leave it out of the recycling bin. But if a box is mostly clean with just a few specks of grease, you’re fine.

This can also be a problem for processing centers where different recyclables are mixed. Residue from metal or plastic could be transferred to paper products. Dual-stream recycling, where different materials get their own bins, is more forgiving.

Remember, recycling is only one of the 5 Rs of the “zero waste stream” ladder:

Refuse what you don’t need

Reduce what you use

Reuse what you can

Recycle what you can

Rot, compost and food scraps

If that sounds difficult, one enterprising New Yorker was able to change her life so all her trash from two years could fit in one small mason jar, which she now reuses as a visual aid. So really, no waste at all. See here.