How many times have you looked at a spent tube of skin care or an empty takeout container and thought, “Hm, this ought to be recyclable,” before tossing it in the blue bin? That’s called “wish-cycling” (aka aspirational recycling): placing something in a recycling bin with the hopes it will be recycled.
While the US recycling rate worryingly hovers around an at best estimate of 35 percent, wish-cycling might be a well-intentioned habit in an increasingly confusing and incomplete recycling system. But wish-cycling often does more harm than good and has consequences that can impact local programs and global recycling as a whole.
The true cost of wish-cycling
Basically, wish-cycling does the opposite of what it’s intended to do and is a problem for many reasons. For starters, it passes the issue of sorting and separation onto local programs, which are already under pressure in the US due to low oil prices, a glut of plastic waste, and South Asian countries no longer taking recyclables from us.
Any material that doesn’t fall into a specific category throws a proverbial wrench in their works. Early in the process, workers manually remove bulky items and other contaminants; things like car parts, bicycles, 5-gallon pails, garden hoses, working smartphones and laptops, and even an actual German Enigma machine from World War II, have been known to show up!
This less than ideal situation—operations halting or slowing as workers hand-remove incorrect items (wish-cycled items, which get sent to landfill anyway)—is actually a best-case scenario, as incompatible items not removed here cause problems. Plastic bags get wrapped around the cogs and clog up the machines, damaging equipment and endangering workers, for example.
But ultimately, what wish-cycling does is diminish the quality of the recycled end-product. Even small amounts of contaminants can ruin an entire batch, and once a batch is contaminated, it is unable to be processed, manufacturers don’t want to buy it, and recyclers are forced to send valuable material to landfills.
So, what can you do to recycle the right way?
- Get familiar with the requirements of your local recycling program. In some communities, local governments have shut down their entire recycling programs and switched to sending all of their recyclables to landfills to avoid the time-consuming hassle caused by wish-cycling.
Prevent this from happening in your area by looking to your city’s specific recycling guidelines; even town to town, what is accepted may differ, so confirm what you can put in your blue bin on your local government website. Print the guidelines out and keep them next to your recycling bin for easy reference.
- Double-check before you toss. Items made out of what comes to the top of our minds as recyclable material may not always be recyclable curbside. Cardboard and paperboard are considered widely recyclable in the United States, but not when laced with contaminants.
- Don’t assume all plastics are accepted curbside. Plastic is plastic, right? Nope, and far from it! Most municipal recyclers accept #1 or #2 white or clear bottles or jars (with caps, pumps, and spouts removed), but any item with small and complex parts or colors and additives is generally not recyclable curbside.
Still confused about wish-cycling, or recycling in general? Ask us anything in the comments below!