The #1 Mistake People Make When Recycling

Are you sabotaging your efforts to help protect the planet by forgetting this important step?

Recyclable garbage consisting of glass, plastic, metal and paper isolated on white backgroundPhoto: Shutterstock / monticello
Photo: Shutterstock / monticello

We all know the importance of going green—and there are so many ways to in the kitchen!—but are you ruining your efforts to help our planet? Here’s the thing: If you’re not taking the time to rinse your recyclables before throwing them into the bin, you may be tossing your good intentions out, too. That’s because items with food residue may end up in the landfill instead of being processed at the recycling facility.

Not only can food residue gum up the machine, causing major delays in the recycling process, but one dirty item can contaminate the whole batch. That’s why workers comb through the recyclables to remove soiled items.

Leftover food residue also can pose a mold and bacteria problem. When recyclables are picked up from the curb, they aren’t immediately processed. They can sit in warehouses for days—even weeks—before being sent to a processing facility. That can mean mold, bacteria and the stench of rotting food builds up, creating health and safety issues for employees.

What’s more, food residue left in containers can reduce the market value of the item, meaning the recycling service provider has less money to improve their facilities.

While the cleaning stage of the recycling process may catch the occasional soiled item, it’s a best practice to rinse before tossing. Rinsing is especially important if your community participates in single-stream recycling. Greasy containers can easily contaminate paper when everything is thrown into one bin.

Here are our tips for preparing your recyclables:

  1. Scrape out as much food as you can. Use a small rubber spatula to get into the nooks and crannies. (A spatula is just one of 21 kitchen tools every cook should have.)

  2. Use leftover dishwater to rinse out each item. There’s no point in wasting clean water! However, if you do need to use clean water, know that the benefits of recycling may outweigh the water use.

  3. Cut down on your packaging. Buy in bulk or choose options with less packaging, like a head of lettuce instead of packaged salads.

Be sure to keep up to date with your city’s processes so you can stay ahead of the recycling game. Make it a habit to rinse out your recyclables before putting them into the bin, and you’ll be well on your way to helping save our planet.

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Alexa Hackfort
Alexa is a writer who believes there’s always room for ice cream. Based in Milwaukee, she enjoys exploring the city, tackling new recipes and planning her next trip.