Recycling plastic bottles can be one small but significant way to help reduce waste, but knowing exactly how you should recycle this kind of plastic is vital.
Take plastic bottle caps, for example. You may not know that leaving the cap on after you empty out and rinse your plastic bottle is helpful for recycling. In many places, that’s the recommended practice.
But people may be confused because this was not always the case.
“There used to be an old message that said you needed to take the bottle caps off before placing the bottle in the bin because it is a different type of plastic than the bottle itself,” said Jeremy Walters, spokesperson and sustainability expert for Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the United States. “Recycling technologies have changed and demand for the recyclable material only continues to increase. So more and more frequently you’re seeing that curbside collection or even commercial collection of recyclables is telling people to put the caps back on.”
“In the last 15 years or so, I keep the caps on, but I don’t think there’s a lot of public clarity on this,” added Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics, a group working to end plastics pollution and a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator.
Why Leaving The Plastic Bottle Cap On Is Beneficial
In general, if you just toss a loose bottle cap into your recycling, it runs the risk of being mistaken for trash or ending up in the wrong place in a recycling center.
“As a rule, anything smaller than a credit card should be placed in the trash because it’s just too small to be captured by the process,” Walters said. “So that’s why it’s so important that when you go to recycle your plastic bottles and jugs that you do put the cap back on.”
Leaving the cap on allows the plastic to be melted down versus putting it in the trash, explained Nancy Lawson, the co-owner of Curbside Management, which manages recycling for Asheville, North Carolina, and western parts of the state.
“The plastic companies that we send our plastics to realize that the cap on a water bottle is a different type of plastic than the bottle itself. It’s two different types of plastic, but they melt them down and they utilize both types of plastic,” she said. “For us here, you cannot just recycle the cap if it’s not attached to the bottle, it’s too small. It won’t progress through our system. It’ll end up on the floor. It’ll end up in another product. It won’t get where it’s supposed to be unless it’s on the bottle.”
Additionally, Lawson said, if the bottle is not emptied, it will not travel through her company’s system properly if it’s too heavy. Lawson stressed that her area may not do recycling the same way yours does. “It’s very important to check your local recyclers to see what can be recycled, what is accepted in their area, and how to prepare it,” she said.
Walters noted that another reason it’s so important to empty bottles is that if two inches of leftover soda, for example, get onto paper and cardboard being picked up with plastics, it can contaminate those items and make them trash.
Beyond helping recycling centers, putting bottle caps back on after you are done drinking a beverage can help reduce litter. Bottlecaps are commonly found on beaches and can be a choking hazard for wildlife.
Designing more attachable caps is something more beverage companies can do to put less pressure on consumers to remember. Enck cited Coca-Cola in the U.K. introducing attachable caps as an important step forward in this area.
“From a litter perspective, you want to tether the caps on all the bottles,” she said.
Always Double-Check Your Local Recycling Rules
There is a caveat, here: Some towns in the U.S. may not accept plastic bottle caps. That can be because of the end markets for the recycled items, Walters said.
“That’s really one of the big challenges with today’s recycling infrastructure is that depending on who’s buying the material, they may have certain limitations on what a recycling center can produce or ultimately what they sell them,” he said.
There’s a lot of pressure on individuals to get recycling right, and you’re not alone if you find plastics recycling to be confusing and frustrating.
“You have to contact your local government, and then sometimes in communities there are different private waste haulers, and it’s even different from hauler to hauler even if you’re in the same town,” Enck said. “So we need some consistency, but what we mostly need is the plastics industry to stop lying to people.” Enck cited California Attorney General Rob Bonta investigating claims of false and misleading advertising in the plastics industry as an example of this.
A growing number of states, like Oregon and California, are investigating misleading environmental labeling. When companies put the standard triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on their products, for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean those products are recyclable. That symbol with numbers actually identifies the type of plastic used for the product.
In 2021, California became the first state to ban the use of the chasing arrows symbol on products that are not commonly recycled in the state as decided by the state’s environmental regulator.
“A lot of things nowadays have that recycling label on them and they may be recyclable somewhere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re recyclable in your neighborhood,” said Melissa-Jean Rotini, assistant commissioner for Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities in New York. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable curbside ... The key for residents who are interested in ensuring that their recycling is properly recycled is to contact their locality. Who takes your trash and your recycling? They’re going to be the ones that know.”
The hard truth is that a lot of plastics will not end up getting recycled. Only 5%–6% of plastic waste generated by the U.S. in 2021 was recycled, a 2022 Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup report found. “We need systemic change, not individual behaviors,” Enck said.
Until that larger system changes, there are still steps you can take as an individual consumer to recycle what you can and avoid buying single-use plastics.