Ask LH: How Clean Does The Rubbish In My Recycling Bin Need To Be?

Ask LH: How Clean Does The Rubbish In My Recycling Bin Need To Be?

Dear Lifehacker, How clean does my recycling need to be when I throw it into my yellow bin? I’ll usually rinse out pasta sauce jars and tuna cans but it isn’t very thorough. Do those still get recycled? What about plastic containers for cream or spreads?

Also, are those plastic takeaway food containers recyclable? Are fast food bags and drink cups (like the ones from McDonald’s) okay to throw into the recycling bin? Thanks, Green Is Good

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Dear GIG,

Australia’s recycling guidelines are set at the council level. The rules can vary considerably depending on the material recovery facility (MRF) used in a particular city or region. As a general rule of thumb, you’re supposed to partially clean jars, tins and containers before throwing them in the recycling bin.

While modern machinery is used to sort recyclable materials, part of the process is still done by hand. This is why it’s okay to recycle glass bottles but broken glass is usually a no-no. Similarly, some councils require plastic bottle tops to be placed inside the bottle to make retrieval easier.

In short, it’s best if the contents of your recycling bin aren’t mixed in with other rubbish or covered in mess. Remember: some poor sap might need to handle this stuff.

With that said, you don’t need to be especially thorough: scraping out the remaining foods and pouring out liquids is usually all that’s required. Some councils do recommend giving recyclable containers a rinse but this isn’t strictly necessary; especially with water restrictions in effect.

As to your next question, most fast food receptacles are permitted in the recycling bin. One exception are items made of composite materials, such as coffee cups comprised of both plastic and paper. These are obviously tougher to recycle and tend to end up as landfill.

We also sent your query to the Garbage Guru; a Sydney-based website that’s designed to assist residents with waste removal. Here’s what they had to say:

It’s best if you rinse containers, remove lids and crush cans and plastic before putting them in your recycling bin, but they don’t have to be perfect. Just give them a light rinse like you’ve been doing before popping into the recycling bin. A little oil and residue is okay, just not big chunks of food or lots of sauce.

If it’s not possible for you to empty the container properly, just throw the whole thing in the normal garbage bin to avoid contaminating the rest of the recycling.

The plastic containers for cream and spreads are fine to recycle as long as they’ve been given a rinse, as are the plastic takeaway food containers. It’s just the Styrofoam containers that can’t be recycled. Pizza boxes are okay to recycle if they aren’t caked in food.

Disposable paper cups like the ones at McDonald’s are made of about 95% high quality paper fibre and 5% plastic coating or wax lining to make them waterproof. Unfortunately the contamination caused by drinks can limit the recyclability of the paper, and the small amount of wax and soft plastic which coats the paper can muck up the recycling machinery. So best to keep them out of the recycling bin.

Fast food paper bags that can be torn are recyclable, but those with wax or plastic lining are better in the general waste bin.

It’s worth noting that the above advice is specific to the city of Sydney: for a definitive answer of what is and isn’t allowed in your district, contact your local council or head to its website. But you can rest assured: a little bit of gunk is usually okay.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Informative story, thanks.

    But… “Similarly, some councils require plastic bottle tops to be placed inside the bottle to make retrieval easier.” How?

    • Plastic bottle tops can usually be bent to fit in the bottle with a bit of effort. Of course doesn’t fit in all cases. Juice bottle would be a lot easier than a peanut butter jar.

  • Why is it that milk and juice cartons are accepted for recycling in most councils, yet paper cups are not? The materials of these products is identical.

    FYI, most paper cups are lined with plastic not wax. Wax coated paper cups are almost non existent as the technology was replaced years ago with PE coating instead of wax. This is a common misconception.

    You also state that “the contamination caused by drinks affects the recyclability of paper cups” Once again, how is this different to other food contaminated packaging that is accepted for recycling.

    Placing a plastic bottle top inside the bottle is not a good idea. Many times the plastic bottle and cap are made out of different plastics that are not compatible with each other. Most plastic objects smaller than 5cm in diameter will not be recycled, they will instead end up in landfill.

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