Ask an Environmentalist: What are some next-level tips to be a recycling pro?

This week, Allen County residents Sara and Todd came to me with an important question: “How well do we need to rinse out containers before placing in recycling bins? We've read that a little bit of stuff in the bottom is okay, and that you waste more resources by rinsing them out.”

Their question points to the fact that we are all now being asked to deposit our recycling materials in a condition that is “Empty, Clean, and Dry.”

I’ve talked before in this series about the importance of fighting contamination in our recycling stream as a result of new, tough regulations set by China on the conditions of exported goods. The takeaway message is that recycling is a commodity that has to be sold and re-used to make something else for it to be a successful way to save natural resources. Therefore, the cleaner that material is, the higher its value.

However, if you are required to clean your recycling, you are necessarily using more resources, so where should you draw the line? 

If you are able to give your can, bottle, or container a quick shake that leaves it mostly dry, you are good to go. The rule of thumb is less than a teaspoon of residue should be left inside any recyclable item. A light rinsing is sometimes needed for stickier remains and should be followed by a jiggle over the sink and re-capping if applicable. (Caps off/on is another recycling conundrum I have just solved for you as a bonus.)

Now for some next-level tips that will make you a recycling pro.

I have heard of some people putting their recycling into the dishwasher to get it really clean. To me, this is definitely overkill. To maximize the efficiency of your machine, it should be as full as possible with actual dishes. I guess if you cram some sticky plastic tubs in there on top of an already full rack, it doesn’t compromise your space, but again, I don’t see the need. 

What I prefer to do with a container that doesn’t relinquish its remnants in a quick swish is to fill it partially with water, and simply leave it in the sink for a while. Usually, I’ll be prepping, cooking, or cleaning something else that requires using water, and this way I’m doing double duty by using the runoff to further soak the item in question.

Then I pop it onto the drying rack to take care of the “dry” part of the equation. 

Many times, there is just a little bit of something left in the bottom of a container that’s perfectly fine, but not really enough to save. Still, it seems like too much to waste. 

I found some amazing fixes for this problem recently, too. There are dozens of recipes that will help you clean out the bottom of a peanut butter jar in delicious ways, for instance. Martha Stewart has the answer to a little bit of mustard remains in the form of a vinaigrette. You can clean out your fridge and empty out those containers with recipes for using up condiments of all kinds.

Fighting food waste, tidying up the fridge, making awesome recipes, and getting my recycling right—now, that’s sustainability-nerd heaven!

I hope you find it as exciting (or at least as approachable) as I do.

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected]
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