The rules surrounding recycling are confusing and seem like they’re constantly changing. In a 2014 online poll by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and Earth911, 65% of respondents said they didn’t understand which plastics are acceptable in the curbside collection. Confusion leads to contaminated recycling, rendering it useless.

However, there is one recycling question we can answer right now: when recycling plastic water bottles, should you leave the cap on or off? While some people think removing the caps helps with sorting at the recycling facility, the opposite is in fact true.

Should you recycle water bottles with or without caps in 2023?

You do not need to remove the caps from your plastic water bottles before recycling them. If you feel like you’ve heard a different story, you’re probably right. The advice around this issue has changed in recent years. According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the reason consumers were previously asked to take the cap off is because the cap is made from a different kind of plastic than the bottle, meaning that the bottle and its cap could not be recycled together.

Now though, advances in technology mean that bottles are ground into flakes 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. The caps will sink, and the flakes will float. Both materials are then recycled into new items. Industry groups now strongly encourage consumers to recycle with the cap on. Here’s an illustrated view of that process:

One more change — we used to be encouraged to flatten the bottle before replacing the cap. This helps the bottle be identified during the sorting process, we were told. But the Association of Plastic Recyclers has other advice. “Flattening bottles can lead to improper sortation, and they may end up in the paper stream. Retaining a 3D form can help containers be successfully sorted.”

If these new rules seem like a hassle, you could always decrease your use of plastic water bottles altogether. Alternatives include a reusable stainless steel bottle or even a foldable, reusable plastic bottle. But for the times you can’t avoid the plastic bottles, now you know what to do when you’re done with them. CAPS ON! Hydrate, recycle, repeat.


Bonus: How to recycle your electronics

There are so many options for recycling your electronics that it may well be the easiest and quickest way to get the digital decluttering job done. Many manufacturers, retailers, and even cell phone carriers offer their own programs.

For cell phones, wireless carreirs such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—not to mention manufacturers including AppleLG, and Samsung–will let you mail in or return old phones for recycling at retail stores and other drop-off locations.  

HP not only accepts printers and computers for recycling, but also the ink and batteries used in those products (and will even give you 15 percent off a new printer when you trade in your old one).

Meanwhile, Staples and Best Buy will recycle most everything they sell for free. BestBuy will even take your old TV—CRT models up to 32 inches and flat panels up to 50 inches—for $25 a pop (not a bad deal considering the former is hard to recycle). The store will even pick up and take away bigger items for a charge.

Many cities and towns have local e-cycling centers and will pick up your stuff along with your other recycling. In addition, many communities organize e-cycling drives on specific days and locations where you can drop off all your old stuff in one fell swoop.

Check TIA E-Cycling Central or Recycle Nation for listings of drives, drop-off centers, and recycling centers near you.