Recycling Plastic Bottles: Lids On or Off?

My mom has always been a proponent of the “lids off and in the trash” camp when it comes to recycling plastic bottles. She still rummages through the recycling to make sure us kids are popping off the caps. My mom wasn’t wrong. Bottle caps, albeit recyclable, are made of a different plastic than the bottles and thus need to be recycled separately. However, caps are small, and they often fall through or jam the recycling equipment; hence the recommendation to trash the caps. But have things changed?

There is plenty of conflicting information out there.

For instance, Recycle Nation claims that the lids should come off.

Most recycling centers have to process lids separate [sic] from the rest of the container. If you don’t take the lid off of an item before tossing it in a bin, the employees at the recycling center will have to manually go through your waste and remove the lids. Save these hard working employees the trouble by removing the lids off of all of your recyclables.

But the Association of Plastic Recyclers disagrees.

In the past the plastics recycling industry was not able to effectively recycle bottles with caps on so the message to remove the cap was created. Recycling collection and processing technology has improved, demand for the recyclable material has increased allowing the current caps on recycling message and process…..Although closures may be made of a different material than the bottle, bottles are ground into flake before being vigorously washed in the recycling process. The washed cap material is then separated from the bottle material during a water bath float/sink process. PET will sink, PP and HDPE will float. Both materials are then recycled into new items. 

It seems that the lids on vs lids off debate comes down to technology. I got the impression that technology may vary by location, and thus there might be some places where you need to pop the lids off and other places where you can keep the lids on. 

I went ahead and looked up the recycling recommendations for various places that I have lived:

  • My hometown Wichita Falls, TX: Not much information, but a local church claims lids OFF
  • My other hometown Golden, CO: Alpine Waste says to leave lids ON
  • Short-lived Pittsburgh, PA:  The University of Pittsburgh waste system says to take the lids OFF
  • My current location Princeton, NJ: The University waste system says to keep the lids ON 

It looks like the debate will live to see another day. Check with your local recycling agency to see what recycling plastic bottles looks like in your community. 

Of course, you should really just buy a reusable water bottle. I love my Hydroflask. REI has a really good selection.


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