Recycling items is one small but helpful way we can reduce waste. But one crucial step is to take the time to understand what your recycler facility is actually accepting, and not what you assume they will take. A lot of us can “wish-cycle,” recycling experts say.
“It is the action ― that most of us take out of benevolence ― grounded in environmentalism, virtue signaling, and learned behavior that many materials can go into the recycling bin, even though we are also learning that they should not be placed there,” said Jessica Heiges, a PhD Candidate at University of California, Berkeley, who researches sustainable and just transitions to waste-free systems and has written about wish-cycling.
In other words, wish-cycling is where you are hoping the item is recyclable even though it’s not. Not only can that cause inefficiencies, it can also be damaging to the process, said Jill Martin, the director of state programs for nongovernmental organization The Recycling Partnership who formerly oversaw a publicly-run recycling facility in Wisconsin.
“By putting things that don’t belong in the recycling system, we consider that contamination and it costs a lot of money and sometimes safety concerns at the recycling facility,” Martin said.
Are you guilty of wish-cycling? Here’s what to know:
The problem with wish-cycling stems from not knowing the difference between reusing and recycling.
Wish-cycling can come from a well-intentioned place of hoping a product can get a second life with someone else if it’s put in the recycling bin.
“One of the most common examples that I give, just because we see it so frequently, is: Don’t throw your bowling ball in the recycling bin. Don’t confuse reuse with recycling,” said Jeremy Walters, spokesperson and sustainability expert for Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the United States.
“We see it all the time where someone has something that’s still good and usable and they don’t want to throw it away,” he continued. “So they end up throwing it in the recycling bin thinking that the recycling company is going to pull the bowling ball out, or the stuffed animal, an old laptop or TV, and then they’re going to donate it.“
But that only contaminates items that are recyclable and makes them trash, and it can also be dangerous, particularly if you try to recycle or trash electronic items with lithium ion batteries, along with your paper and plastics.
“E-waste should not go in your trash or recycling bin because of the potential for fires. And we see fires more and more frequently,” Walters said. “If you think about the nature of what we take into a recycling center, it’s a lot of paper. There’s a lot of cardboard. And then, plastic being derived from an oil, it’s a pretty tremendous fuel source if a fire starts.”
The size of what you are trying to recycle is also a factor with wish-cycling. Loose plastic items smaller than a credit card are generally unable to be recycled by facilities.
Plastic straws, plastic bags and books are too often wish-cycled.
Louis Vetrone, deputy commissioner for Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities in New York, cited plastic straws as one commonly wish-cycled item.
“It’s made out of a recyclable material, the plastic, but it’s not going to get recycled by throwing it in your recycling bin, because it’s just not something that optical sorters are going to pick up [or] that someone on the line [like] a quality-control person [is] going to be able to grab, to put into the recycling,” he said.
In these cases, the unfortunate answer is to throw that item out instead of trying to recycle it, Vetrone said.
Walters said in his experience, flexible plastics like grocery bags are the items people are most likely to be confused about and wish-cycle. “Flexible plastics are probably one of the biggest challenges that we deal with across the country day to day, because they wrap and tangle around the sorting equipment,” he said.
And wish-cycling plastic bags can make it harder on workers who have to take those plastic bags out of sorters. “There’s an employee that has to go in with the utility knife and literally go into those screens and cut those plastic bags out of the screens to make sure that the equipment is operating properly,” Martin said.
Vetrone noted that hardcover and paperback books are another major item that people frequently wish-cycle without understanding that the glue binding can make the book not recyclable with paper. And besides that reasoning, “It’s always good to donate books anyway,” he said.
What you wish-cycle in one area may be recycled in another.
One important caveat to wish-cycling: You should double-check the rules, because what is recyclable can vary widely from state to state and town to town.
“Recycling regulations are mostly enacted at the local level, so over the years local jurisdictions have implemented and adapted recycling regulations that are supported by their constituents and ratepayers,” Heiges said. “Furthermore, regulation has been influenced by various lobbying groups, so the strength of the lobbying group in a particular jurisdiction can influence what policy is adopted or not.”
“I always give folks the disclaimer: Check with your local service provider because there are nuances when it comes to recycling, depending on your locale,” Walters said, noting that generally what facilities are looking for are rigid plastic containers.
Melissa-Jean Rotini, assistant commissioner for Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities in New York, shared how in some places, straws within kids’ juice cartons actually are recyclable if they are pushed within the carton, as an example of how the rules can be confusing to consumers and “why we always recommend that people reach out to their local hauler or municipality, whoever is managing their recycling, and ask about these rules.”
Limiting what you buy and being a conscientious recycler can also help you avoid wish-cycling.
Wish-cycling is one part of a systemic problem with recycling confusion. Some states like California are even taking steps to ban misleading recycling symbols on plastics products that are not actually recyclable, according to the state’s standards.
Heiges said that one way to limit wish-cycling is to support legislation that aids reuse and recycling systems, and focus on reducing waste where you work, wherever you can. Individuals can also limit wish-cycling by being more careful consumers and recyclers at home.
Consider if you can get another use out of an item before trying to recycle it. “If you do have things that are still good and usable, find alternatives to throwing it away,” Walters said. He recommended reusing glass bottles and jars, making old T-shirts into cleaning rags, and selling old items on Facebook Marketplace as ways to reuse items.
And to be a better recycler, Martin suggested keeping your recyclables empty, clean and dry as possible by quickly rinsing them before you recycle, because it’s better for the workers handling your recyclables, and it helps facilities run more smoothly.
“We would love to see clean material coming through because there are human beings touching that material,” she said. “And secondly... We use optical sorting to sort out those types of materials and if there’s food residue or liquid left in that, the optics can’t do their job because they can’t see through the material, they can’t see through their ranch or the peanut butter. And so those things make it very difficult for the machines to separate [recyclables].”
Plastics generate a lot of waste and the vast majority do not end up being recyclable in the U.S. Limit buying plastic products where you can. Each plastic is given a resin code and those labeled 1 and 2 ― such as those for soda bottles and shampoo containers ― are more likely to be recycled in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If purchasing plastic, prioritize plastic resins 1 and 2, Heiges recommended, because those are considered less problematic than plastic resins 3-7.
Walters said the numbered resin codes can be confusing and suggested for consumers to focus on the characteristics of the plastics. “A rigid plastic container is a pretty safe catch-all” for recycling facilities, he said.
And ultimately, as an individual, buying less and choosing more sustainable options when shopping can help avoid needing to wish-cycle single-use items later on. “Look for bulk items that create less waste ... In some stores, you can bring [and] refill your container at bulk areas for grains and beans,” Rotini said.
If you don’t see sustainable items where you shop, ask for them. Rotini said you could try talking to your market’s manager and letting them know you want to shop more sustainably and reduce your waste.
Taking that extra time to understand what is recyclable, and being more mindful of what you do buy may cost you more time, but it can be helpful for reducing waste.