Recycling Mystery: Metal Lids & Bottle Caps On Glass Containers

When discarding plastic bottles, many recycling services now prefer you screw plastic tops on before dropping empties in the bin. What do you do with the metal lids on bottles and jars?

Recycling practices are not universal and requirements vary — including what to do with lids from glass jars and bottles. With glass, the rules are usually different. We pause to note that it is always wise to ask your recycling service provider for specific instructions. With that said, below are some answers you may encounter if you ask what to do with tops-on glass containers.

  • Remove metal lids from jelly, mustard, and other jars.
  • Remove aluminum twist-off tops from wine, olive oil, and sparkling water bottles.
  • If you’re inclined to press the ridged metal caps back on beer and soda bottles, don’t.

Mixed Recycling No-No’s

After dropping empty, lid- and cap-free glass containers into your recycling bin, what do you do with the metal caps and lids?

Metal is definitely recyclable. But lids and caps are often undesirable in mixed recycling — with some exceptions — because most equipment doesn’t efficiently sort and separate them.

During sorting, caps and lids often wind up with glass shards, explained Robert Pickens of the Oklahoma Recycling Association. When the glass is shipped off for processing, mixed in metal adds extra weight and may boost the transportation expense, he said. That added cost makes glass recycling unaffordable for many cities.

At the glass processing facility, depending on its equipment and practices, the metal might be collected for recycling. Or, it might simply be discarded.

Wide-mouth metal jar lids with a minimum diameter of 2 or 3 inches may be an exception, even if other metal lids are not accepted in mixed recycling, Pickens noted. Among the providers accepting 3-inch lids in mixed recycling, at least in some of its service areas, is Waste Management. Three-inch lids usually are able to sort properly with other metals, a Waste Management spokeswoman explains.

Metal Recyclers Usually Want Them

So, you separate your metal lids and caps — what to do with them? Metal recyclers typically accept — and may even pay for — lids and caps from the public.

“Metals are some of the more valuable materials in the recyclable stream,” said Kent Kiser, publisher of Scrap, a bimonthly magazine published by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which recently changed its name to the Remanufactured Materials Association.

Metal recyclers often accept metal lids and caps. Photo: American Metal Recycling

For example, American Metal Recycling in Ohio pays for steel and aluminum drop-offs. The company welcomes metal lids and aluminum caps, explained supervisor Scott Hudack. He continued, “I think everything we do to save our environment is a step in the right direction.”

American Metal Recycling pays per pound of eligible material. Depending on the market, the payout is usually 5 cents to 9 cents for steel and about 35 cents to 45 cents for food-grade aluminum, according to Hudack.

A well-intentioned person who would need to drive a significant distance to drop off a small number of caps at a metal recycler might want to evaluate whether recycling the metal is worth the environmental impacts of a road trip.

What About the Coating Inside the Lid?

Today, most metal caps and lids have an inside coating where the metal would otherwise come into contact with the container’s contents. But this non-metal coating doesn’t necessarily mean that these items won’t be accepted by metal recyclers. Pickens said that coatings usually are not an issue, because they burn off when the metal is melted.

Sheldon Hoffman, owner of American Metal Recycling, said acceptability of a metal lid with a non-metal coating— such as rubber, plastic, or other material — would depend on the material, whether that material needed to be removed, and if removing that unwanted material would be worth the effort to reclaim the metal.

My Provider Can’t Take Loose Caps and Lids

If your recycling service doesn’t accept loose metal caps and lids in your curbside bin, ask your provider if this technique would be acceptable: Drop caps and lids into cans of matching metal (for example, steel lids into steel cans and aluminum caps into aluminum cans). That way, the small lids and caps will pass through the automated sorting process without dropping out prematurely.

To make jar-lid recycling work, you need to follow a few guidelines:

  • Don’t mix metals, which are usually differentiated by whether they’re magnetic. “It would not be acceptable to a metal processor to place an aluminum cap in a steel container … or the other way around,” Pickens recommended.
  • Don’t flatten cans or containers because automated sorting equipment usually identifies objects by weight and dimension, cautioned Pickens. A three-dimensional object needs to remain three-dimensional to be recognized for what it is and sorted properly.  Pinch just the top to hold the caps in the larger container.

If your curbside provider doesn’t accept metal lids and caps at all, your next bet is to find a nearby metal recycling facility.  And to avoid wasting a trip, call to confirm they’ll accept your items before you make the delivery.

Ideas for Repurposing

Some artists devise colorful mosaics using metal bottle caps, such as the following mahi-mahi masterpiece by Eric Henderson of Eric’s Easel.

Mahi Mahi Fish Art Bottlecap Metal Wall Dolphin Fish by Eric's Easel
Mahi-mahi fish art. Image: Eric’s Easel on Etsy

Chelsea Odum, education and program coordinator for Resource Depot, a nonprofit creative reuse center in Florida, offered a few other crafty ideas. Decorate the inside of the lids or caps with paint, photos, or other embellishments. Drill a hole and hang them as ornaments. Glue on a pin-back and wear. Or glue onto a magnet and pop them on the refrigerator.

Odum also suggested making kid-friendly musical instruments. Caps offer a pleasant rattling sound. Or stretch rubber bands of different sizes and tensions around a lid for a guitar-like instrument for youngsters.

Speaking of art, assorted lids are perfect as a palette for squirting dabs of paint during an art project.

Feature image by Donations_are_appreciated on Pixabay. This article was originally published on July 11, 2018.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 11, 2018, updated in September 2021, and most recently updated in May 2024.

Got a question about how to recycle as specific product or type of material? Let us know, and we’ll do the research, sharing the results with the world. You can help support our work, too!

 



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