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 curbside collection. Confusion leads to contaminated recycling, rendering it useless.

However, there is one recycling myth we can clear up right now: you do not need to remove the caps from your plastic water bottle before recycling them. While some people think removing the caps helps with sorting at the recycling facility, the opposite is in fact true.

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.

A new era

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 leave that 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.

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