Streets department curby & our plastic bag monster by Chicobags Do you ever wonder if you really need to scrape that last bit of ketchup or maple syrup out of the jar before tossing it into the recycling container? Are clean recyclables key to an efficient and successful recycling process?

The answer… well, it depends.

Residue left on plastic or glass containers is typically flushed out with water at some point in the process. Goo and gunk  traces on steel and aluminum cans is most likely burned away during the recycling operation as well.

Essentially there’s no need to waste tons of water by running the faucet repeatedly over your recyclables—even if you were to get them pristine clean, they’d probably end up getting washed again.

However, you do NOT want to throw half-full food items in the recycling bin as this can lead to mold, insects, vermin and other unsanitary conditions.  I’m grateful to recycling center employees (and machinery!),  and the thought of mucking up their important job gives me major green guilt. So while I won’t likely build my biceps scrubbing every last microscopic speck from jars a little consideration can go a long way.

Every area handles the “dirty” recyclable issue a little differently. James Horrox the General Manager at Philadelphia’s Waste Management said, “In a perfect world, everyone would be careful to separate any food waste from their recyclable material; they would also wash out bottles, cans, and plastics before placing them for Single Stream collection. Unfortunately, we are far from a perfect world! Pizza boxes are not a problem, and our presort operators (which you saw) try to remove any obvious non-recyclable material (leftover food, dirty diapers, yard waste, etc).”

Horrox also brings up a relevant point regarding commingled plastic bags. “One of our biggest obstacles is when these components are all mixed together in a plastic bag that our operators must then attempt to open. We accomplish this with varying degrees of success, which is why the material goes through several sortation screens and quality controls.”

Perhaps another reason we should reduce plastic bag use in Philadelphia

If you’re uncertain of how to handle specific items or need more info for your area Earth911 is a good resource. You can search by zip code to locate recycling centers with links to their contact info.



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  • Suzanne

    Good to know! I was wondering this just the other day while cleaning out a moldy (gross) salsa container.

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