People recycle because they don’t want to waste resources. Throw a yogurt tub in the trash instead of a colored bin, and you lose forever to a landfill whatever use could be gotten from that plastic. But recycling itself also consumes resources, so how can you judge the trade-off? Such is the worry of a Mother Jones reader:
City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I’ve become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?
The columnist ignores the question of resources, instead saying that 1) you don’t have to get the containers squeaky clean, but 2) the cleaner they are, the more valuable they are, so “by providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money.”
By the logic of the second point, everyone should also not only be sorting and cleaning their recyclables, but also personally transporting them to the recycling center, perhaps stopping along the way to dive a dumpster or two for more revenue-generating recyclables. Think of all the money you’d be saving taxpayers!
Ikea furniture is cheap, but the price can be misleading because you’re performing the value-added process of building the furniture yourself. For some the labor and time involved is a trade-off worth making. For many people, however, it’s better to pay a higher price for a typical piece pre-assembled by an expert.
Cleaning recyclables is also a value-adding process, and if your goal is to conserve resources, you want that process done as efficiently as possible. The single best way to ensure that efficiency is to pay the specialist to do the recycling for you. Don’t waste any resources cleaning the yogurt tub, just throw it in the bin as is .* If a modern recycling facility can’t turn a dirty yogurt tub into a valuable resource, then how in hades do you expect to do better in your kitchen!
* Prediction: As automated scanning and sorting technologies improve, and the economic value of recycling increases, sorting at the home will disappear entirely. Sci-fi writers and futurists feel free to include this prediction in your works.