Wish-cycling is the practice of recycling items that cannot be recycled. It stems from the best intentions. You wish or hope that something you’ve bought or use regularly can be recycled. Instead, your good intentions end up costing recycling companies more time and money. Worse, it can impact recycling at a later processing point.
The items that people wish-cycle are usually things you would expect can be recycled. Something may have a recycling symbol on it and not be recyclable in your area. Each district has its own rules and available equipment. While one location may be able to take styrofoam packaging and turn it into insulation, the equipment needed may not be found in your area.
Why Does Wish-Cycling Matter?
Imagine you have a peanut butter jar that still has stuck on peanut butter at the very bottom. It’s an item made from recyclable plastic, so it can be recycled. The truth is that it can’t in this state. Recyclables must be cleaned of stuck-on foods. Melting down the plastic requires hot temperatures that can scorch the stuck-on food. Forming new plastics with burned scraps of food would lead to contaminated plastic, which is no good. Take the time to scrub the jar with a brush to remove the peanut butter and it is recyclable.
The cardboard container your burger and fries came in. It’s cardboard, that can be recycled as paper right? Again, the greasy residue left behind is no good. It impacts the quality of recycled materials made at a later time. Clean items processed with that greasy package or stuck-on food is contaminated by the foreign substance, so the entire batch is now useless.
People wish-cycle many items. Pizza boxes are one of the more common ones. While some districts may accept greasy cardboard, many more do not accept them. People also often wish-cycle mixed plastics, which cannot be melted down and reused. Small plastic lids, styrofoam, and plastic bags also cannot go into curbside containers. Tupperware and other plastic storage containers are also often put in recycling bins, but they’re a type of plastic that few places accept.
What happens if you put items in the recycling bin that shouldn’t be? In some areas, you’ll be issued a warning. Too many warnings can lead to your curbside service being halted. Workers may have to sort recyclables by hand. Items that should have been placed in the trash are set aside and trucks have to take them to the landfill. The extra trucking ends up driving up fees and/or taxes.
In plants where recyclables are separated by machines, the machines may jam or break. Plastic bags are notorious for causing jams. Repairs and maintenance are expensive and slow down the processing cycle.
General Rules for Recycling
Check your local waste district’s rules on recycling. If you have curbside service, your company should have a guide on its website or a guide on the lid of your recycling bin. If not, ask for guidance.
Plastics bottles, tubs, and jars are often recyclable. They do have to be cleaned of stuck-on foods. Buckets are usually not recycled through curbside pick up. Plastic wrap, plastic grocery bags, plastic mailers, and bubble wrap/mailing materials are not. You should save them and bring them with you to your grocery store. Most have bins in the front entrance or bottle redemption area where you can drop these items.
If you own a pod-style coffee maker, purchase a reusable pod. Fill it with your preferred coffee, make your cup, and compost the grounds when you’re done. Even better, skip pods completely and invest in a French press or pour-over coffee maker that doesn’t require a coffee filter.
Metal cans are recyclable. Again, they need to be clean of any stuck-on food. Many districts accept clean foil pouches and aluminum foil. You can also recycle glass jars and bottles. Pots and pans that are no longer needed must be brought to a recycling center and not placed in curbside bins.
Cardboard can be recycled, but most districts require it to be dry and free of grease stains. Pizza boxes are often not recycled. Wax coated boxes you get in frozen foods are often not recyclable. Check local guidelines to see if the rest of your cardboard boxes and items need to be cut down to a certain size.
Most companies do not require you to sort items. Find out if your local hauler practices single stream or dual stream recycling. If it’s a single stream system, everything you can recycle goes into one bin. If it’s a dual stream system, you do need to sort paper from glass and metal.
Tips for Improving Your Recycling Habits
When you purchase items, look for bottles and cans that are made with recycled plastic or glass. It helps companies avoid having to purchase virgin materials and reuses the plastics that could otherwise end up in landfills. Reusable water bottles and travel mugs made from recycled plastic and stainless steel are also good options.
Stop using disposable bottles and cups. Instead, bring a travel cup with you to a coffee shop and have them fill it. Discounts vary. In Vermont, Panera discounts your coffee by 20 cents if you bring your own travel mug. Starbucks has a program that takes $1 off your next drink order if you return with a reusable cup. Ask around and see if any local coffee shops offer similar discounts.
Bring reusable bags and containers when you’re shopping. Reusable bags eliminate the need for plastic and paper shopping bags. You can also bring boxes or plastic milk crates and leave them in your trunk. Simply put loose items back in your cart after you’ve paid and load them into the boxes in your trunk.
Buy spices, nuts, and grains in bulk and use your containers. It keeps you from needing a plastic bag or new plastic or glass container. Ask the store what their policy is for deducting the weight of the jar or container from the total weight.
Composting is a good way to recycle items that aren’t as easy to recycle. The greasy pizza container you can’t recycle could get torn up and added to a compost bin that’s used on your flower beds. Let nature break it down and turn it into nutrient-filled soil. Layer the cardboard with grass clippings and leaves, vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds. Packaging like compostable shipping peanuts is also a good addition to a compost bin.
Purchase items in bulk when possible. Instead of getting the single-serve chicken breasts that are packaged in plastic pouches and placed into a larger plastic bag, buy chicken breasts at the deli and wrap them in foil at your home. When you have a chicken breast, rinse off the foil and recycle it. Even better, purchase and use reusable freezer bags. When you remove the chicken, turn it inside out and wash it in hot, soapy water.
You can also use reusable bags for loose vegetables and fruits. Instead of putting your onions in a plastic bag, place them in a small reusable canvas bag. After you’re done, you can wash the bag and bring it the next time you need groceries.
If you’re not certain your local district accepts certain items for recycling or they tell you they can’t, don’t give up hope. Your local waste district may not accept car batteries, but an auto parts store might. To make it easy to uncover the best places to bring your recyclables, Recycle Nation created an online directory. Go to Recycle Nation, choose your item from the list, enter your ZIP, and get directions to the closest drop-off location.