One of the key instructions for recycling bins is to “clean first”. What does that mean? Should you use tons of soap and hot water or just a quick rinse under the tap?
It's just a rinse*
Yes it is just a rinse. There is no need to scrub it clean.
*OK there are some exceptions. Read on.
What about tetrapaks?
Do you have a drink carton that is hard to rinse out? Cut along the top of the box to expose the inside to give it a rinse. Then flatten it before putting in the recycling bin.
When you should try harder: food jars & tins
If the container is oily or has food residue that does not come off easily with a rinse, then yes make a bit more of an effort to get it clean. It does not need to be squeaky clean but should not be attractive to pests or contribute food contamination into the system.
Sometimes you should just chuck it
Is the container PLASTIC and OILY? It is probably not worth the soap and water to get it clean.
Plastic is “lipophilic” meaning it loves oil and will not let go without a fight. It might take a lot of time and energy to get it clean enough to recycle, and there's no guarantee it will actually be recycled even if you do a good job cleaning it.
Takeaway food containers are the worst. They can get very oily and are hard to clean. Plus they are made of polypropylene, ("PP" or #5) which has a very low recycling rate. So usually it is not worth the effort to try to recycle these containers by washing them.
Use your judgement: if the plastic is quick and easy to clean, do it. If not, chuck it.
What about other oily materials?
Metals have high recycling rates cleaning and recycling metals are worth it.
Glass does not have such a high recycling rate however it tends to be easy to clean and any level of glass recycling is energy saving given how much energy it takes to make new glass.
So for oily metal and glass? Go for it. Get it clean if it is easy to clean. Olive oil bottles, for instance, are difficult to clean so you may have to chuck them.
Again: if the item is not oily or covered in food residue then all you need to do is give it a rinse!
Is it oily or have heavy food waste?
- No: rinse & recycle
- plastic: chuck it
- metal & glass: clean it & recycle IF IT IS EASY TO CLEAN
Reminder: any container that is rusty should be thrown in the trash.