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Recycling 101: The Problem with Wish Cycling

How Aspirational Recycling Can Hurt Diversion

As more people have become aware of the environmental issues around waste, they are also being more active in ensuring their own waste doesn’t contribute to the global problem through recycling.

It is awesome that people are trying to lessen their impact and that they recognise the importance of recycling. The problem, however, is that there are many misconceptions about waste, which often leads people to wish-cycle. After all, people understand that avoiding the landfill is a good thing, so they believe they are doing the right thing, when in reality, it may have a detrimental effect.

What is Wish-Cycling?

Wish-cycling, also called aspirational recycling, is the practice of recycling items that cannot actually be recycled. It is most common with plastics because of the complexity of plastic recycling, but can also happen with other products like heat-proof glass or aluminium foil.

People wish-cycle because they believe that the items are, or in some cases, should be recycled. It’s usually people that are extremely well-intentioned but don’t have a complete education around the complexities of recycling.

I know I’ve been guilty of this at one point or another. Most people concerned with the environment probably have as well. But wish-cycling can have major consequences and be more harmful than you think.

What’s the Problem with Wish-Cycling?

While wish-cyclers are well intended and know that recycling is a good thing, wish-cycling is not a good thing. It’s not just a simple mistake, but one that can actually end up being worse for the environment. Unfortunately, because of issues with our recycling process in general, wish-cycled materials can wreak havoc on diversion rates.

There are three main issues with wish-cycling:

1. It can create more waste

Every time a batch of recycling is contaminated with non-recyclables, it risks being sent to the landfill altogether. That means not only did the original container that was wish-cycled not get recycled, it also caused way more recycling to be landfilled instead.

2. It can be costly and time-consuming

Wish-cycled materials that aren’t immediately caught may end up going through the recycling process, which can damage the sorting machinery and cause costly delays. These delays and costs are then sometimes used to write off recycling altogether as not worth it – which isn’t true.

3. It can make recycling appear more helpful than it is

Wish-cycle creates the mindset that everything is recyclable, so reducing and reusing isn’t as necessary. Unfortunately, this can be harmful to enacting real progress within the sustainability community and make it hard to advocate for better recycling practices.

As big recycling advocates ourselves, we love preaching the importance of conscious waste habits. However, we’re careful not to overemphasise its value, as the current global recycling system (especially when it comes to plastics) is far from perfect. In fact, recycling should be one of the lowest aspects of the waste hierarchy after reducing and reusing.

Things You Can Do to Avoid Wish-Cycling

To avoid wish-cycling:

  1. Educate yourself and your family on what can and can’t be recycled at your home and in your workplace.
  2. Pay special attention to plastics, as they are the most common material to be wish-cycled.
  3. Learn what the plastics codes mean and which ones are recyclable in your area.
  4. Double-check for commonly mis-recycled items and ensure you don’t fall into the trap of recycling them.
  5. Work to reduce hard-to-recycle materials from your life by looking for materials like glass, aluminium, and paper over plastic. Or utilise bulk sections of food at grocery stores and bring your own reusable containers.
  6. Finally, if in doubt, throw it out. As annoying as it is to see materials go to the landfill, it is better than contaminating larger amounts of recycling.

As we’ve discussed before in this series, recycling is very location-dependent, so always double- and triple-check your municipality’s requirements before recycling.

Wish-cycling comes from a place of good intentions, but unfortunately, it has the opposite intended effect. Recycling is far from perfect in the current system, and it’s often frustrating to come across materials we think should be recycled. But by doing so when they are not, we are creating a bigger issue. As we continue to invest and expand recycling facilities, as well as understand and change our packaging, wish-cycling won’t be an issue because everything we use will be recycled. Until we reach that point, though, avoid wish cycling at all costs.

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