Published on May 22nd, 2019 | by Scott Cooney


With caps or without? Clean them or not? Recycling 101 questions answered

We’ve all been there. Standing at your recycle bin and thinking, “Should I take the cap off this bottle or just leave it on and toss the whole thing in? And how clean does it need to be?” Will the cap get recycled along with the bottle, or will it cause someone in the waste chain from taking the whole thing out of the recycling stream and toss it in the landfill pile? And if the bottle isn’t clean, will they be grossed out and just push the whole pile into the landfill?

Before we dive in, keep in mind, recycling is the last option–the saying “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” goes in that order for a very specific reason. Even in the best case scenario, with willing and knowledgable customers (like you!), less than 10% of plastic gets recycled, despite our best intentions. The rest goes to landfill if we’re lucky, otherwise, it’s oceans, lakes, or storm drains, etc., if it’s improperly handled. Assuming you’ve already worked on “reduce and reuse”, let’s proceed to recycling.

Bottle recycling – caps or no caps?

The simple answer is that you should remove the caps. The first reason is that, with plastics anyway, when you put bottles in the recycle bin, remove the caps because the plastic bottles will get crushed into cubes for ease of transport. Crushing these without caps means that there’s less air (and liquid) trapped in the cube, and therefore transporting them is more efficient and cleaner, which is nicer to the people working in recycling.

But should you throw the caps in the recycle bin, too? The second reason to remove the caps is that the caps may be different types of material than the bottle, which would contaminate the recycle stream, and yes, cause perfectly recyclable materials to be pushed into the landfill instead. Check out this container, for instance:

The bottle is a #1, the best type of plastic (still a dubious distinction at best), at least for recycling purposes.

But the cap is #5, which is a plastic that doesn’t usually make it to a recycling facility and instead usually goes to landfill.

Thus, when a #5 cap is left on a #1 bottle and the whole thing is sent to recycle, the end product after it’s all melted down is lower quality, and when it’s lower quality as a product, buyers don’t want it, and as a result it often goes straight to the landfill after getting rejected by buyers.

So the trick with plastics is to look at the numbers. If they’re the same number, you could potentially leave them on the bottle, but there’s still the matter of the air and liquids trapped in the bottle at that point. So take ’em off anyway.

The next consideration is…will the cap get recycled? The answer depends on what your municipality takes. If it takes #5, great! Toss it in the bin. If it doesn’t, then no, that cap is bound for the landfill and you need to put it in the trash.

Clean or not?

When asked about how clean a bottle needs to be to get recycled, the answer is…clean. The global market for recycling products is very limited. China stopped buying our recyclables a few years ago, and as a result, global commodities traders don’t know what to do with our recycling. So if you want stuff to actually get recycled, it has to be clean to even have a chance at having a second life outside a landfill.

Remember – less than 10% of plastics gets recycled, no matter what we do or what type it is. So…it’s time to start getting into the zero waste life.


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About the Author

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on

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