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Can You Recycle Plastic Lids and Bottle Caps?

Recycling Lids and Caps Can Contaminate Recycled Plastic and Endanger Workers

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Plastic bottle caps arranged on a table top.

Many recycling centers do not accept plastic lids, tops and caps. They are usually made of a different plastic than the containers they accompanied and can contaminate the recycling stream while also jamming equipment and injuring workers.

Photo: GregPC/Flickr
Dear EarthTalk: Everyone knows we should recycle metal, glass and plastic cans and bottles, but what about all the lids, tops and caps? I see people recycling plastic bottles, for example, with their caps on, but I've always been told to thrown them out. Is that wrong?Stefanie Gandolfi, Oakland, CA

Many municipal recycling programs throughout the United States still do not accept plastic lids, tops and caps, even though they take the containers that accompany them. The reason is that lids typically are not made from the same kind of plastic as their containers, and therefore should not be mixed together with them.

Plastic Lids and Plastic Containers Don’t Mix
“Just about any plastic can be recycled,” says Signe Gilson, Waste Diversion Manager for Seattle-based CleanScapes, one of the West Coast’s leading “green” solid waste and recycling collectors, “but when two types are mixed, one contaminates the other, reducing the value of the material or requiring resources to separate them before processing.”

Recycling Plastic Lids and Caps May Pose Dangers to Workers
Also, plastic caps and lids can jam processing equipment at recycling facilities, and the plastic containers with tops still on them may not compact properly during the recycling process. They can also present a safety risk for recycling workers.

“Most plastic bottles are baled for transport, and if they don’t crack when baled the ones with tightly fastened lids can explode when the temperature increases,” Gilson says.

Most Communities Ask Consumers to Discard Plastic Lids and Caps
Some recycling programs do accept plastic caps and lids, but usually only if they are off their containers completely and batched separately. Given the many potential issues, however, most recyclers would rather avoid taking them altogether. Thus, it is hard to believe but true: In most locales, the responsible consumers are the ones who throw their plastic caps and lids into the trash instead of the recycling bin.

Metal Lids and Caps Can Sometimes Be Recycled
As for metal caps and lids, they, too, can jam processing machines, but many municipalities accept them for recycling anyway because they do not cause any batch contamination issues. To deal with the potentially sharp lid of any can you are recycling (such as a tuna, soup or pet food can), carefully sink it down into the can, rinse it all clean, and put it in your recycling bin.

Buying in Bulk Means Fewer Plastic Lids and Caps to Process
Of course, the best way to reduce all kinds of container and cap recycling is to buy in large rather than single-serving containers. Does the event you’re holding really require dozens and dozens of 8- to 16-ounce soda and water bottles, many of which will get left behind only partly consumed anyway? Why not buy large soda bottles, provide pitchers of (tap) water, and let people pour into reusable cups?

The same kind of approach can be taken with many if not all of the bottled and canned grocery items we buy routinely for our homes. If more people bought in bulk, apportioning out of fewer, larger containers, we could take a huge bite out of what goes into the waste stream.

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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