Does It Actually Matter How Clean Your Recyclables Are?

To clean or not to clean? The answer hinges on the economics of food residue.

Over at Mother Jones, Kiera Butler gets to the bottom of a question that has niggled uncomfortably in the recesses of my consciousness for years: Does it actually make a difference if your recyclables are clean or not? Is it worth the effort, hot water, and dish soap to get the last traces of yogurt off a tub or pet food off a tin can?

The answer, unfortunately for the lazy recyclers amongst us, is yes.

It turns out that your oily, salad-dressing covered take-out box is still perfectly salvageable—but it's worth up to 30 percent less than a cleaner container. Butler discovers that:

Municipal facilities first sort recycling by type (paper, several kinds of plastic, tin, etc.), and then by quality. Workers separate clean recyclables from soiled ones, into bales. "If the bale is lower quality, there is less revenue coming back into the system from the sale of recyclables, which helps pay for the program," says [Robert] Reed [spokesperson for Recology, the company that runs San Francisco's recycling program].


So, while you shouldn't let grease marks or tomato juice stop you from recycling your food containers, if you can clean them, do it! You'll be helping to make recycling more economical (and thus attractive) for your city and your fellow taxpayers.