Special Reports

Rinse, recycle, repeat: making sure items don't get trashed

Couple of years ago, Roger Lyon remembered reading an article in a popular magazine saying leaving some peanut butter in the jar doesn't matter at the recycling center.

"I remember that article every time I throw one of those in the trash," says Lyon, manager at the Pro Kansas Miller Recycling Center in Wichita.

When to rinse bottles or cans, or whether pizza boxes can be recycled with that oily ring in the bottom, can be subjects of intense debates, around the dinner table and across the Internet.

Lyon says if those items are too dirty, the brokers and businesses charged with actually recycling the materials won't take them. So that peanut butter jar that you meant to be recycled ends up going to the land fill, as sure as if you threw it in the trash.

Good news, Lyon says, it doesn't take much effort to get those bottles, cans and boxes clean enough.

"They don't have to be sparkling," Lyon says. "A little film around the inside doesn't matter."

Lyon said it's tough to describe what's acceptable. He'd rather show you:

At our house, we throw jars and glass in the dish washer. To save water, we don't run the washer until it's full and we just throw a jar or bottle in with the rest of the dishes. Then it goes into the recycling bin.

Lyon says you don't have to be that obsessive about it. Anywhere from a few tablespoons to a cup of water in the bottle, shake it a few times, should do it. You probably use more water brushing your teeth.

"We have people call us and ask us if they should rinse out their water bottles," Lyon says with a smile. "I ask them, what would you use to rinse that water bottle out?"

It's all right to leave the plastic cap on the bottles, Lyon says. Just loosen it about a half turn, so it will flatten in the bailing process.

The big concern is the health risks of leaving food waste around the house, or bringing it to the recycling center.

"We don't want mice or rodents that the food scraps will attract," Lyon said.

The dreaded ring in the bottom of a pizza box? Acceptable. Crust crumbs, bits of cheese or forgetting to take out the cheese and pepper packets? Not.

Recycling centers can operate because they sell the items in bulk, which end up at materials recovery facilities. The most profitable are the cloudy plastic milk jugs and the plastic containers for your laundry soap.

A quick rinse will get your milk jugs ready. Laundry containers can be more difficult, because of those spouts on the end. Lyon sees plenty coming in with soap sloshing around in the bottom. He suggests pouring a little water down the spout, shaking it, then dumping the rest in the washer. The water won't dilute it so much you can't squeeze out enough for a final load of laundry. That's what he does.

Once again, a few suds in the bottom: no big deal.

The practices work for Waste Connections, which offers the single-stream home recycling program in Wichita. They want milk jugs rinsed and peanut butter jars without the peanut butter.

Lyon says what he throws out in the trash is less than one percent of what comes into the Miller recycling center.