To Rinse or Not To Rinse: A Recycling Mystery Solved

People ask us all the time about recycling. One of the most frequently asked questions we hear is “Do you need to rinse all containers before tossing them into the recycling bin”? We think that’s a great question and have often wondered that ourselves. To explore this issue, today on the 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 percent, to be exact—say they recycle on a regular basis. Of the 4.5 pounds of waste that we produce on average per person each day, we recycle about a third of it, according to the EPA. Not too shabby, considering how much all that recycling reduces the amount of garbage going into landfills.

Most recycling programs in the U.S. today commingle all the glass, plastic, aluminum, and other recyclables into one bin and 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 whether 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 is a significant water savings compared to what would be used to manufacture new containers from scratch.

Three cheers for a full recycling bin! (Steven Depolo/Flickr)
Three cheers for a full recycling bin! (Steven Depolo/Flickr)

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 savings of energy. 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 a lot of 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 through to the manufacturing and use of the product and until it is disposed of or recycled. Eric points out that when we recycle and repurpose materials “we cut the loop short” of the lifecycle of a product, creating significant environmental benefits, not to mention the money that is saved.

All that said, the rules regarding whether you need to rinse out your containers actually vary from city to city. It all depends on who is collecting 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 Earth911 to see the guidelines for your area.

Eric is not only incredibly smart, but he makes it really easy to understand the environmental and economic impact of recycling. Listen to today’s EcoMyths Worldview podcast to learn more or read the myth for more on rinsing your recyclables.

—As part of our partnership with Worldview, this content may also appear on Chicago Public Media.