Whole Living Daily

Ask Mindy: Is Rinsing My Recyclables More Important Than Saving Water?

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Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.

We live in the desert southwest, so watching our water consumption is a must. We also recycle. I know we are supposed to rinse out food containers to go into the recycling bin, but by doing this, are we impacting our environment negatively in one way to favor the other? Which should take priority, saving water or recycling clean containers? —Carolyn Eisenhauer

Thanks for your thoughtful question. It is widely acknowledged that the world is approaching a drinking water shortage of crisis proportions, and, living in a desert climate, you are likely more aware of this than most. But here's something you might not know: Recycling, in and of itself, does help to save water. According to the Pacific Institute, it takes three liters of water to produce a virgin plastic container for one liter of bottled water.

If I had to choose, I’d vote to save water over chucking spotless containers in the bin. But you can do both by making sure your containers are adequately clean—not pristine. First, check your city’s municipal waste department guidelines. In addition to removing food residue, some recycling programs require rinsing and removing labels, while others don’t. For example, New York City’s online guidelines say “rinse them clean”, and San Francisco’s say “please rinse.”

One reason to clean recyclables is to prevent unsanitary conditions that attract vermin. Another is to avoid clogging the recycling machines with sticky food residue. Some cities have the facilities to do cleaning and recycling, and others contract out the work. In the latter case, recyclables are separated into high or low quality (clean or not); lower quality receives less money and thus earns less to help pay for the recycling program. But one way or another, it still gets recycled.

If your city requires that you do the cleaning, here are some tips:

  • First, scrape all the gunk out of containers.
  • Give the insides a scrub with dry crumpled newspaper.
  • Instead of letting the kitchen faucet water run at up to three gallons per minute (gpm), fill a bowl or pot with warm soapy water and swish out the food containers. Reuse this water for all recyclables, and don’t rinse with clean water.
  • If you haven’t already, install an aerator on your kitchen sink spout to reduce water flow to at least 1.5 gpm. Although the EPA’s Water Sense labeling program currently only covers bathroom faucets, manufacturers such as Delta Faucets are making kitchen models that comply with WaterSense bathroom faucet flow standards of no more than 1.5 gpm. Some models go down to as low as 0.5 gpm.

If you want to do more, see Whole Living’s 50 Ways To Conserve Water. You might already be doing most of them, but I, for one, have a ways to go!

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s eco expert. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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