Q: I am a big believer in recycling, but it takes water to clean empty peanut butter jars, etc., so are we really saving? My water bill is high enough. Do they really need to be that clean?
M.B., of Waterloo
A: Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but just how godly you have to be to recycle apparently depends on where you live.
That’s the word from the folks at EcoMyths Alliance, a group of environment-conscious experts who, since 2009, have been confirming or refuting commonly held beliefs in hopes of spurring Joe and Jill Citizen into doing “one green thing at a time.” As you imply, many people may avoid recycling containers, thinking they have to be squeaky clean. That’s just not so, although just how clean they have to be, believe it or not, depends on your recycler, they say.
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“Chicagoans, for example are off the hook for rinsing,” they say, referring to the Earth911.com website, which lists requirements by zip code. “Meanwhile, in San Francisco, ‘all materials should be rinsed prior to recycling.’”
It all leads to this general rule of thumb from Eric Masanet, a professor and researcher at Northwestern University and former editor-in-chief of the science journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling: Follow the guidelines in your area, but don’t stress over making them shine like fine china.
Yes, most recyclers do require some degree of cleaning. Masanet points out that on its website, Waste Management, which handles half the nation’s curbside recycling programs, says that one dirty item can contaminate thousands of pounds of collected plastics. Still, Masanet stresses, because an item is contaminated doesn’t necessarily relegate it to the landfill. Recycling facilities will use a mix of people and machines to sort and then purify or clean everything according to type.
“Metal is the least sensitive to contaminants, while plastic is so easily contaminated that even residue from a label can alter its chemistry and affect the quality of the recycled material.”
As a result, contaminated recyclables have less market value, which cuts into a recycler’s bottom line. So, yes, some rinsing and cleaning is usually preferable, but you don’t have to go overboard, EcoMyths notes.
“Conserve water when you rinse,” it suggests. “Scrape food out first with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, then swish a little bit of water around versus letting it sit under a running faucet. If you have several containers, just fill up a bowl or sink and use the same water for the whole job.”
While doing it, pat yourself on the back. You may be using a little water, but cleaning is almost always an environmental slam-dunk if you don’t go overboard, Masanet says. For example, it generally takes three to 10 times as much water to produce metal for steel and aluminum cans than it does to recycle them. So rinsing them a bit will hardly cut into the savings. For glass, recycling generally saves 1 to 2 pints of water for every glass pint bottle. PET and HDPE plastics usually are thoroughly washed as part of the recycling process, but some studies say recycling may save up to 8 gallons of water for every liter bottle.
If that’s not enough to convince you, maybe these statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency will inspire you: Five 2-liter recycled PET bottles produce enough fiberfill to make a ski jacket. Recycling one soda can saves enough energy to run a computer for three hours. The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.
Composting stinks? Fireplaces are eco-friendly? Plastic in your face scrub? Find out more about these and other popular beliefs at www.ecomyths.org.
What does the Madison Buffalo Jump State Monument near Bozeman, Mont., commemorate?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: They probably weren’t on a roll (so to speak), but the Chinese apparently were the first documented people to use toilet tissue. As early as 589, Yan Zhitui wrote, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages I dare not use for toilet purposes.” In 851, an Arab traveller to China remarked, “ ... (the Chinese) do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities, but they only wipe themselves with paper.” By the early 1300s, people in modern-day Zhejiang province were turning out 10 million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets every year, according to Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilization in China.”