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Do You Need to Rinse Your Jars Before Recycling?

Recycling can be confusing. We consulted the experts to find the answer to this question and more.
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Published Jan. 12, 2024.

Many of us grew up learning about the importance of recycling, but a lot has changed as more food products have entered the market, compostable materials have become more common, and recycling technology has evolved over time. 

There’s no denying it: recycling is confusing, and it varies a ton across municipalities, so standards may be different depending on where you live. 

We spoke with Michael Orr, recycling director for the City of Cambridge, Mass., to learn more about general recycling tips that can be applied no matter where you’re located. These guidelines apply to the general curbside recycling programs in most towns and cities. 

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TIP: Look up your town’s rules

Regulations vary town to town. The below rules apply to most town’s curbside recycling, but they might have broader recycling options of niche items available at your local department of public works or at some supermarkets. But don’t stress! “If everyone does it just 90% right, that’s substantially better,” says Orr. He recommends this online tool for recycling questions to find out more about recycling rules near you.

Q: Do you need to wash all food containers before recycling?

A: No

In general, the more liquidy the contents of the container are, such as a bottle of beer, the less you need to worry about rinsing them. But “when it comes to more viscous items,” says Orr, “a quick rinse is really helpful.” 

You don’t need to go out of your way to use extra soap and water; simply use the leftover suds from washing dishes to rinse the container. If you can get most of the residue out of a peanut butter jar or ketchup bottle, for example, that’s good enough.

Q: Should you remove the lid before recycling?

A: No

It’s simple: leave the lids and caps on all containers. Because they’re too small to go through recycling facilities by themselves, “[lids and caps] won’t get recycled if [they’re] removed,” says Orr.

An exception: If your bottle of soap has a pump with a metal spring, toss that in the trash before recycling the rest of the bottle. “There isn’t an easy way to remove the metal spring from the bottle at the ultimate recycling facility,” says Orr.

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Q: Can you recycle plastic bags?

A: No

If it’s a container and it’s rigid, you can probably recycle it, advised Orr. But don’t recycle any kind of plastic bag or film. These more flimsy materials can get tangled in standard recycling equipment.

Q: Can you recycle compostable containers?

A: No

It’s great that fast-food companies and restaurants are switching to compostable takeout containers, but make sure you put those in compost receptacles, not the recycling. 

Q: Is all paper recyclable?

A: No

Paper items that have a water-resistant coating (such as paper milk cartons and other aseptic containers) often can’t be recycled. Please check with your local communities' rules. Paper napkins and paper towels are always not recyclable but are compostable in most places. 

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Q: What happens if I accidentally try to recycle something that isn’t recyclable? Is the whole batch ruined?

A: No

Typically, most items that don’t look at all like something that could be recycled (such as electrical cords or textiles) are moved to the trash, said Orr.

Other items, such as aseptic containers that look similar to recyclable cardboard, might make it into the system. They don’t ruin the batch of recyclables, but they do lessen the quality and possibly lead to increased processing costs, he explained.

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