How to Recycle Water Bottles the Correct Way

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Even if you are committed to using a reusable water bottle for your daily water intake while on the go, there still may be times you find yourself drinking from a single-use plastic water bottle at an event or an unplanned thirsty moment. But once that water bottle is empty, how do you go about recycling it properly?

Plastic recycling has changed over the past few years. It's important to know how to recycle water bottles the correct way, so be sure you're up to date on the latest recycling rules!

Know Your Local Rules

Single-use plastic water bottles are typically made of either polyethylene terephthalate (PETE, plastic number 1) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE, plastic number 2). The caps of water and other drink bottles are usually made of polypropylene (PP, plastic number 5), with some varieties made of HDPE (plastic number 2).

Always check with our local recycling authority on what is accepted in your region. No two recycling materials recovery facilities (MRF, pronounced "merf") have the same exact equipment, so what you can recycle varies by where your recycling ends up for processing. Look up your local solid waste district and study what is accepted and what they expect you to do with your recycling before you haul it to the curb or drop it off.

woman wearing white carigain and light jeans carrying smart phone with headphones and single-use water bottle close to body

Should You Keep the Caps On?

According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the industry standard is now to keep caps on all bottles, including the ring of the caps. The recycling plant process typically separates the lids from the bottle by how their plastic content floats in water. The plastic bottles are first completely shredded or ground up into flakes, with caps and bottles together. The two kinds of plastic are then separated in a float-and-sink tank where the cap flakes float because they are a different density and the bottle flakes sink. A flow of water moves floating cap flakes one way and sunken water bottle flakes in a different direction. Both are recycled separately.

One major exception to this caps-on rule is metal lids. Do remove metal lids before recycling and put them in the trash, or recycle them with your dropped-off scrap metal. Unfortunately, you can't individually recycle these curbside because they are too small.

How Should Water Bottles Be Prepped for Recycling?

Keep your water bottle intact, not flat. MRF equipment usually sorts plastics by shape, and you want your bottle to be recognizable by the machinery. Keeping the cap on the bottle will ensure that your water bottle will retain its original shape.

Additionally, although recycling is washed during processing, it still has to get there and be processed. So, rinse out or fully wash your recycling before throwing it into the bin. This reduces the smell and general unpleasantness of unwashed recycling. With a single-use water bottle, it is still best practice to give it a rinse to remove germs and backwash and let it dry a bit.

What Bottle Sizes Are Accepted?

It's a typical rule of thumb that items smaller than a four ounce single-serving yogurt container should not be recycled because they will not get sorted properly. Most mini water bottles are eight ounces—larger than a four ounce yogurt container—so they are fine to recycle.

a variety of green and clear water bottles crushed without lids - the wrong way to recycle!

Should You Recycle the Label?

The label on a water bottle will be processed out before the bottle is shredded at the MRF, so it usually isn't something you need to worry about as a recycler. Many water bottle labels are made of film plastic that isn't recyclable. If it stretches like a plastic shopping bag (low-density polyethylene, plastic number 4), you could put it in with your plastic bag recycling, which you can drop off at the store. However, most plastic labels are made of non-stretchy film plastic that is not recyclable and should be landfilled—and will be through the recycling process. If your drink has a paper label, do recycle it with your paper recycling.

Share Your Knowledge

As someone in the know on how to recycle water bottles the correct way, it's great to share your knowledge with those around you. By helping others recycle, you are cutting down on recycling contamination. The issue of trash mixed with recycling makes recycling harder for businesses doing the good work of helping our society reuse material resources. Indeed, according to the Center for EcoTechnology, contamination is one of the main reasons that China stopped accepting American and European recycling in January 2018.

Additionally, small objects such as water bottle lids, lid rings, and labels are easily separated from trash during collection and can become litter. Litter often then shows up as plastic pollution in the ocean. So, seize those opportunities to talk to your coworkers, your household, the members of your playgroup, your children's teacher, and extended family members about how to recycle this common plastic the right way. Let's all try to be a force for good recycling in the world!

Are you inspired to learn more about sustainable living? For more eco-friendly ideas and tips, follow the Thinking Sustainably board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Take a look a second look at your recycling this week and be sure that you are recycling water bottles right according to your local rules. Contamination is a big problem in the recycling industry, but you can be a force for good to make sure you're recycling right.