Should I put dirty glass in the recycle bin?
March 12, 2006 4:22 PM   Subscribe

What happens when I put a glass peanut butter jar with peanut butter remnants in the recycle bin? Does it cause extra work for the recycle sorter? Or will it just pass through the process?

Do they pick dirty glass out? How dirty?

I'm asking because when I don't have time to clean a glass jar I will just throw it away in the regular garbage. If it doesn't matter if it is clean or not then all this time I could have been recycling.

I've also always been conflicted with the amount of water needed to clean a glass jar versus the value of recycling glass to the environment. Is it worth it?
posted by 9000.68 to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It will pass through the process. Glass is collected and run through a bunch of processes that remove labels, extra plastic and residue. The glass is broken up and then heated to 2700 degrees and mixed with new glass or glass material to make new glass that is X% post-consumer content. I have read recycling literature that suggests that the main reason you clean out containers is to keep the smell down and the animals away, not because it's necessary to the recycling process. My sister is one of those people who will stack up jars and cans waiting to be rinsed out before she'll put them in the recycling, so I looked this up at one point trying to make an argument to get her to clean up her kitchen.
posted by jessamyn at 4:41 PM on March 12, 2006

Recycling doesn't work. No modern industrial recycling process is energy efficient, no recycled paper, glass or plastic products are as high in quality or as cost-effective as their original iterations, and recycling is primarily intended to reduce landfill. Except it's not doing much in North America to reduce landfill, so just throw crap out and forget about it. Your children are going to inherit a very disgusting planet no matter what you do.
posted by chudmonkey at 4:42 PM on March 12, 2006

Jessamyn is correct - the glass is washed anyway. Though you should make an attempt to clean your glass, out of pity for the people who work at the recycling plants.

chudmonkey is incorrect. While paper is inevitably somewhat lower in quality after each run-through (shorter wood fibers each time, but there's plenty of need for toilet paper), glass and plastic can be 100% identical to "virgin" glass and plastic. Making recycled glass costs 30% less than making virgin glass, I think the figure is even higher for plastic. In Toronto, recycling currently eliminates 40% of the garbage that would otherwise go to landfill, which I deem to be a substantial amount.
posted by jellicle at 4:58 PM on March 12, 2006

Let me add that here in Toronto we truck all our trash about 400km to Michigan. It costs a significant amount of money - for fuel, trucks and landfill costs. Recycling is much cheaper. Trash is not free, unless you live in Utah or Arizona and have lots of spare free land to dump it in.

The issue is not "what's the cheapest way to get glass or aluminium stock" but "what's the cheapest way to get rid of garbage".
posted by GuyZero at 5:04 PM on March 12, 2006

That's certainly true for paper and plastic; maybe even for glass. But Aluminium is so energy intensive to extract from its ore that I have difficulty believing that it's more energy efficient just to dump it.
Have you got any references for the energy efficiency and output quality of different recycling processes?
posted by atrazine at 5:18 PM on March 12, 2006

Also, one cool thing I learned about aluminium from the discovery channel is that after it's recycled, its quality is equal to brand new aluminium. So while other recyclables may lose quality the more cycles it goes through, aluminium does not.
posted by chrisroberts at 5:26 PM on March 12, 2006

atrazine and chudmonkey, sources?
posted by duende at 5:54 PM on March 12, 2006

I could provide references, I'm sure, were I to search the net looking for articles I've already read, or to dig through my magazine stacks for further sources, but I'm not here to change anyone's mind. For every verfied fact or figure I come up with, some pro-recycling poster will counter with some stat they've found showing that in some limited way I'm wrong.

Recycling is a great idea that is being mishandled by governments at every level in most parts of the world. Governments as a whole spend far more to subsidize and encourage recycling efforts than those efforts are worth, AS A WHOLE. The energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness of recycling are worse than simply raping the land for new stuff, AS A WHOLE.

I guess my real thoughts on the matter are this: If you truly care about the environmental impact of a discarded glass peanut butter jar, then skip the jar all together. Get a nice, clean-able, re-usable container and buy your peanut butter in bulk, using the same container everytime.

Recycling is like communism - it's an all-or-nothing proposition that would probably work great if human beings weren't in charge of adminstrating it. But greed, lassitude, dissent and short-sightedness make the system fall apart.

Remember, people deciding that simply throwing something out is easier or cheaper than re-using it is the whole reason we have the waste-management problems that we do. If you aren't commited to recycling, what's the damn point?
posted by chudmonkey at 5:55 PM on March 12, 2006

Well I know that recycled paper is of lower quality because the fibers are much shorter, and since wood is renewable resource and paper biodegradable, it wouldn't seem to be ideal for recycling.
Some plastics can be recycled only at a high cost in energy, some can only be 'downcycled' - turned into inferior plastics, and some can't be recycled at all.
Glass can be infinitely recycled and doesn't go down in quality, but nobody cares. The process of melting recycled glass for re-use is near identical to making it in the first place, and the raw materials are hardly rare. This probably is a waste of energy if you look at energy involved in collecting and washing the glass.
Just about any metal is worth recycling, because the original extraction process is energy intensive, none more so than aluminium which has to be extracted by electrolysis(1). On a larger scale, old ships and such are regularly sold for their scrap steel, so it's economically viable at least on a larger scale.

(1) In fact, this uses so much electricity that aluminium ore mined in Australia is shipped to Dubai to be processed and then the aluminium is shipped back to Australia. Electricity is a crucial few cents on the KWh cheaper in Dubai.

Aluminium is actually one of the most common metals in the Earth's crust, so it's not like we'll actually run out, but the energy savings of recycling already electrolysed Al is immense.

On the other hand, copper is relatively cheap to extract, but is quite rare, and we're about to start running out of large, easily mined deposits, so recycling that is probably going to become a viable business model soon if it isn't already.

As far as recycling in general... well I agree with chudmonkey, nice idea and all, rarely worth it.
Not for paper
Not for plastic (would that we used a lot less of the stuff)
Not for glass
Maybe for aluminium

...and I haven't answered the actual question yet. I assume that it doesn't make a difference, the recycling process involves machine washing all the glass anyway (even if it looks clean, traces of detergent/tomato/etc. are will negatively affect the quality of the glass)
posted by atrazine at 6:05 PM on March 12, 2006

Even Penn and Teller, in their "recycling is stupid" episode of Bullshit, admitted that recycling aluminum made sense and was a profitable venture.

Someone more in the vein of the original question, probably the best thing you can do to make recycling better is to remove the lids from the containers and throw them away. They are almost always not made from the same material as the container they sealed, and are almost never coded. Toss 'em unless you see a matching code on them.
posted by zsazsa at 6:09 PM on March 12, 2006

duende: according to the aluminum society
"Recycled aluminum—from beverage cans to all other uses—requires only about 5 percent of energy as compared to primary-ore production."

and according to The Mineral institute
"Other areas of the world with access to abundant and cheap electricity, such as the Middle East, are also expanding their metal production capacities."
posted by atrazine at 6:11 PM on March 12, 2006

recycling bins are normally not covered, and it seems like an unwashed peanut butter jar would be pretty likely to attract rodents to your yard, which would seem to be a worse consequence than creating problems for whoever does the recycling.
I've heard mixed things about recycling paper and plastic, but from what I've read recycling glass and aluminum is worth it.
ChudMonkey- why does recycling have to be all or nothing? So long as we don't have recycling center sitting around unused, why would recycling say, half of the things we should not be an improvement over recycling none of the things we should? (provided there are things that *should* be recycled)
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:12 PM on March 12, 2006

martinX's bellbottoms: I think that recycling should be an all or nothing affair for the same reason I think that removing cancerous growths from a patient should be an all or nothing affair. On a person-by-person basis, the impact of recycling is so low as to be nothing. On a societal basis, the efforts of those trying are so overwhelmingly countered by those not trying that the effort becomes a farce. Since most societal-level recycling programs are run by governments and funded by tax-payers, the facts they aren't profitable and aren't having a substantial impact on landfill means that they aren't worth it. Just because something is a good, noble idea doesn't mean you should implement it and waste a fortune. I realize that everything costs money and government programs aren't nessecarily supposed to be profitable, but such a low percentage of people engage in voluntary recycling that it really emphasizes the pointlessness of government programs.
posted by chudmonkey at 6:37 PM on March 12, 2006

I have no idea about the correct answer, but I assume that Jessamyn (a smart woman) got it right in the first reply. As for the economics, people who for whatever reason want to downplay recycling usually forget to include the (not-insignificant) money you'll save by removing the stuff from the waste stream, and not burying (or burning, or whatever) it in the first place.

It's a kinder, gentler mirror image of the old trick of nuclear power plant economics, where proponents say they've worked out all the costs, but have not included money that will have to be spent because a) something has to be done with the waste, and b) sooner or later (often, much sooner than expected) the plant is going to have to be decommissioned.
posted by LeLiLo at 6:42 PM on March 12, 2006

If you wash your dishes by hand, leave your cans and bottles near the sink. When you are completely done washing your dinner dishes, throw in the recycling stuff. You don't have to go nuts, I like to sloosh out the salad dressing bottles, cans can just go in and out. Its quick and doesn't use any extra water.
posted by 445supermag at 6:45 PM on March 12, 2006

The correct ordering of waste reduciton is: (1) reduce (2) reuse (3) recycle.

Whether recycling is actually viable depends a great deal on the transformation required to turn a used object into raw materials from which new objects can be fabricated. Metals are often relatively easy because you simply need to heat bulk metal to turn it into a useful industrial source material. Carbon-based products (plastics) are more complicated because heat tends to break down the long carbon chains, resulting in a different material that was originally put into the recycling system.

A decade ago (maybe still, I haven't been back since), you couldn't buy a soft drink in a new bottle in Egypt. Any coke you bought came in a worn and chipped bottle that had very clearly been reused MANY times. It would be cool if there was a set of generic glass jars and bottles that could be reused in a similar way for other common food items. You would save significant energy by simply cleaning and irradiating a bottle rather than melting it and reforming it into a new object.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:53 PM on March 12, 2006

What would be better than recycling is standard, reusable containers. Your Teddy peanut butter would come in the same jar Jif uses. When you've eaten all the Teddy, you rinse the jar and turn it in for a small deposit. It's then washed and sold to a food manufacturer, who fills it up again and pastes a label on it. No remelting costs, net savings of energy.

There would be a standard set of drink bottles, another set of jars, for PB or instant coffee or mayonnaise or whatever, and so on.

Strangely, we used to have this system for a lot of things, notably beer. The system we have now is much worse, in so many ways.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:54 PM on March 12, 2006

I just read the book Garbage Land : On the Secret Trail of Trash . The author follows her trash and recycling to their various ending places. It is a fascinating and illuminating read.
posted by john m at 6:57 PM on March 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

the energy costs point is a good one. the fuel that is used to facilitate the process of recycling is sometimes (if not frequently) much worse for the environment as a whole, then just getting new stuff.

but as its been said by a few people, the problem of waste isn't so much about recycling or not recycling, its about the level of unnecessary consumption and the demand for "new" or "fresh" packaging for everything.
posted by teishu at 7:05 PM on March 12, 2006

#jellicle: glass and plastic can be 100% identical to "virgin" glass and plastic. ... I think the figure is even higher for plastic.

You are wrong about some forms of plastic. At one time I looked into PET (the plastic of soft-drink bottles). Recycled PET has shorter chain lengths and is not as strong a virgin PET. I believe all drinks are packeged in virgin PET.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:15 PM on March 12, 2006

It's okay to leave limes in your beer bottles, too.

"One ton of recycled aluminum saves enough electricity to power the average home for almost two years."

I reuse my jars as tupperware, drinking glasses, and dried bean storage. I especially like glass jars with lids when I want to throw a cup of tea or coffee into my bag confident that it won't spill before I get there.
posted by salvia at 8:26 PM on March 12, 2006

Here in the UK there are rumours the govt will make recycling pretty much compulsory by introducing charges for each refuse collection as already done in Ireland.
The voluntary stage just allows things to be ramped up to cope with demand
posted by Lanark at 4:26 AM on March 13, 2006

It is best to relax and let the recycling center clean the jar. They have to clean everything no matter what, and they aren't going to single out your jar for special treatment if it's visibly dirtier than the next person's jar. Store them in a sealed container until you're ready to give them to the recycling folk.

All the talk here about whether recycling is effective is beside the point. BUT -- better to try than not to try. Just be sure to combine recycling efforts with laws that make unnecessary waste production very expensive and keep pushing for biodegradable packaging.
posted by pracowity at 4:59 AM on March 13, 2006

Trash collection charges were implemented in my town some years ago. The voters rebelled, and the charges were abolished. The new approach is ever-stricter rules on what can't go in the rubbish - now, no cardboard or recycleable paper or plastic can be visible, or the collection truck won't take your trash.

I would love to see a real returnable container effort. The 'bottle bills' that some states have are weak incentives for recycling. b1tr0t's battered Coke bottles used to be the norm here in the U.S., too.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:07 AM on March 13, 2006

There's a relatively new non-profit org called GreenBlue that aims to revolutionize manufacturing processes so that they become two-way. Currently, when you make something, it can't be easily unmade when you're done with it.

This can change, as outlined in the book Cradle to Cradle.
posted by Caviar at 8:36 PM on March 13, 2006

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