This article was originally published March 2020 and has been updated.
Americans are united in the urge to recycle. About 90% of U.S citizens support the practice of recycling, and for 28% of the country, their communities consider it an important civic duty.
It’s actionable, too. Amid heightened interest in the environment and enlivened participation in the nation’s sustainability efforts, we’ve been given an avenue to curb our wasteful ways. An estimated 94% of the population has access to forms of recycling like curbside bins, commercial dumpsters, or drop-off centers, which mollifies many of our concerns.
For the majority of businesses and individuals, the ends justify the means. The thought is if you do your part—putting an item you hope can be reused or recycled in the bin or dumpster instead of the trash—the collectors will somehow find a way to recycle it.
However, expectations and reality are very far apart.
When you try to recycle a “disposable” coffee cup, greasy pizza box, or the ink cartridge from your office printer, wistfully expecting them to embody the next new product on the shelf—you’re actually an unknowing participant in the act of wishcycling.
And as you’ll see, you’re not the only one who’s crossing their fingers.
WHY IS WISHCYCLING PROBLEMATIC?
A Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of the public believes that “most types of items” can be recycled in their community. And there’s some merit to that: The EPA says 75% of our waste stream is recyclable.
The problem is that many Americans have no clue how recycling works or what products are made of. Something you think may be one material might actually be another, and sometimes, there’s more than meets the eye. In this case, your business is a victim of too much goodwill and not enough education.
Also known as aspirational recycling, wishcycling leads to an array of problems in the recycling process. Even though it seems like the right thing to do, wishcycling is one of the biggest challenges facing the recycling industry to date.
From used takeout containers to paper coffee cups, items that may seem recyclable can contaminate whole loads of valuable materials, making them impossible to process and sell. It only takes one non-recyclable item to contaminate an entire load of recyclables and force recyclers to send them to landfill.
The wishful thinking, and the guilt behind contributing more junk to our rising landfills, is a powerful urge that’s difficult to overcome. That’s probably why, outside of the typical Styrofoam plate or plastic bag, you’ll find car parts, mannequin arms, umbrellas, bowling balls, and boat anchors (it’s more common than you think).
The mindset that recycling is easy may be contributing to the behavior. Americans assume the nation’s recycling facilities are as efficient at sorting out the junk as a Gmail spam filter. They’re not.
Your dumpster or bin full of miscellaneous recyclables is picked up and dumped into a compactor truck filled with other people’s miscellaneous recyclables. Your act of wishcycling complicates the sorting process for recycling centers—called material recovery facilities, or MRFs—as recyclable contamination and the “rogue”' materials lead to higher sorting costs and delayed timelines. Items like plastic bags, metal chains, old jeans, and greasy pizza boxes easily clog up sorting machines, eliminating the value that existed for the recyclables in the first place.
When this happens over and over, communities sometimes decide to shut down their recycling programs, sending all of their recyclables to landfill instead. Worse, a “contamination fee” is routinely applied to your business’s bill.
HOW TO AVOID WISHCYCLING
Learning which items can and can't be recycled can help put an end to wishcycling. It's always important to check in locally to confirm which items your program accepts, but below are the most common dos and don'ts to help you get started. Bonus: Download our helpful one-pager here if you're interested in sharing this information with your colleagues.
Plastics with “chasing arrows” symbols #1 and #2 (PETE and HDPE)
*Clean* cardboard and mixed paper products
Rinsed and dried aluminum and glass containers
Sort your recyclable materials by stream to ensure they remain clean, uncontaminated, and valuable. And whenever possible, compost your food waste too!
Do NOT Recycle
Paper and foam coffee cups
Plastic shopping bags
Greasy pizza boxes
Plastic utensils and straws
Coffee pods (“K-Cups”)
All Styrofoam, films, and plastic pieces smaller than a credit card
Containers with food and drink residue
Many of our everyday products are an amalgamation of multiple materials. For instance, a Starbucks coffee cup is paperboard on the outside but features a plastic liner to prevent leakage. A helpful tip: When thinking about how it’s recycled, consider how it’s made.
Please place all non-recyclable, questionable, or downright absurd items into the trash to prevent contamination.
STOP WISHCYCLING, START SMARTER RECYCLING
Wishcycling is a reflex. Americans don’t give a second thought to placing something plastic in the recyclables because, in a perfect world, plastic should be recycled—we’re in an environmental crisis after all.
While solving for our 32.1% national recycling rate is complex and nuanced, unlearning the bad habits and understanding the rules of the game is a crucial contribution. The simple act of keeping materials clean, and the ability to know when junk is garbage, can go a long way!
So, the next time you go to throw something in your recycling bin that you aren’t sure about, do a quick search or reach out to one of our recycling experts who will be happy to help!
RoadRunner Recycling alleviates the tough calls, making recycling easier for everyone. By educating our customers, we aim to provide the appropriate information and operations to efficiently, sustainably, and economically recycle more… without the bowling balls and boat anchors.