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Wash Your Recyclable Plastics (or Not)

Cleaner plastics in the recycling stream offer multi-stakeholder benefits.

Photo of Paricha Duangtaweesub
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When I was writing my post about a visit to Recology's recycling facility, I realized that I didn't know how best to take care of my plastic recyclables. From what I have heard, plastics should be properly rinsed with water before sorting them into recycling. But why is that?



So I did a bit of research into this topic and found that it is not technically necessary to completely rinse all plastic containers that has food stuffs on it.

Food or organic residue can spoil during the travel time from my home to the sorting/transfer facility and then to the purchasers of recycled materials. This process can take weeks, even months, depending on the infrastructure or when the recycler decides to sell (for the best prices).

So by rinsing, I would help out the system on several fronts:

  1. Keeping the system clean for operators: We all know that spoiled food smells bad - so by rinsing the containers, I can at least help make the working conditions for the human operators on the recyclable sorting line a tiny bit better. 
  2. Keeping the stream clean for other recyclables: Some areas have a single-stream recycling program therefore any organics or soiled plastics can affect the paper, metals, and other materials in the same bin. While metals are melted during the recycling process (and so the food will burn away), papers can be rendered un-recyclable if it is soiled enough. 
  3. Keeping up the recycling services: Cleaner plastics, sold in batches, can fetch high prices - which would allow the recyclers to keep up their services and keep innovating!


Image source: Clean Energy Ideas, Recycle Nation

Sources: Recycle Nation, Mother Jones, Slate

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

This research is borne out of a curiosity for the way we currently think about recycling food containers. It might be most relevant to Use Case 2 and 3 where the recycling bottle caps and coffee lids are concerned.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

My main goal here is to question why we do the way we do things and the myths about certain practises. I hope this inspires other to get to the bottom of their own investigation into the status quo.

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