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What is wishcycling?

Wishcycling, whilst often done with good intentions, is a threat to the global recycling effort and we need to raise awareness of it. This article covers the word’s meaning, issues associated with it, and how we can avoid it.

What is wishcycling?

You might have seen this word before and thought it sounded somewhat positive upon first reading. Hopeful, even. Surely anything involving dreams of a better future and promoting a circular economy to save this little planet of ours has to be something to strive for?

Unfortunately not. Whilst the development of ever more sophisticated recycling schemes, plants, and campaigns around the world continues to provide the average citizen with a myriad of ways to produce less waste, there is no denying that there has been a directly proportional increase in general confusion about the best ways to recycle and what can actually be recycled. That’s where wishcycling sneaks in. It’s a term used to describe the action of those, who, wanting to ‘do the right thing’ and recycle as much as they can, end up placing things in their recycling bins that shouldn’t be there, with the hope that these will eventually be recycled further down the line.

“The belief boils down to the idea that just about anything can be recycled, and that if you put it into a recycling bin, those who are responsible for it will inevitably find a way to recycle it.” [Andrew Krosofsky]

Another descriptor is ‘aspirational recycling’, which makes it sound like the kind of virtue signalling in which people compare in a self-congratulatory manner how little waste they have managed to accumulate over X period of time, forgetting that not everyone has access to top-notch recycling facilities, zero-waste shops and the luxury of time needed to plan plastic-free shopping trips in advance. Quite ironic, when you consider that the consequences of aspirational recycling are actually detrimental to our efforts to promote sustainability.

The term is used with a bottom-up meaning referring to the people themselves that chuck everything in the recycling bin with the hope of it being recycled - the wishcyclers - as well as a top-down view describing the process by which non-recyclable items end up contaminating what would otherwise be deemed material fit for another life.

What problems does wishcycling cause?

The issues that can be traced back to wishcycling fall into 2 main categories; on the one hand, you have the direct strain placed on recycling facilities and the staff that manage them, and on the other, it actually leads to more precious materials being wasted - completely the opposite intention of your average wishcycler!

When an item that can’t be recycled enters the wrong ‘stream’ in a recycling centre, extra time and money must be spent to stop it from contaminating containers of other materials - that is, if it even can be separated. Robotic waste sorters in many centres can get jammed up with films and similar flexible plastics, and might need to be shut down in order for them to be fixed. These inactive periods obviously lead to a drop in efficiency, notwithstanding the financial consequences of the increased labour time (and its subsequent costs) used by employees to sort this out.

But how might your well-intentioned attempt to recycle something non-recyclable lead to more waste being produced? Firstly, last night’s takeaway container innocently tucked away in your recycling box could lead to the non-collection of your neighbours’ or even your entire street’s boxes - if one household’s box is contaminated with non-recyclable materials, who’s to say that the others aren’t? And where are people likely to take boxes that haven’t been collected, considering that a lot of citizens don’t live within walking or even driving distance of a decent recycling centre? No prizes here for guessing why some feel the only alternative is to put the contents of these rejected boxes into the landfill waste stream. Some people might even have access to highly sophisticated waste sorting facilities but become so overwhelmed with information that they feel they can’t navigate it without close guidance - consider Newcastle-under-Lyme’s 9-bin system that was in use prior to 2016.

Further on in the process, residue on some common items we recycle can end up destroying whole batches of materials made from them. A good example of this is the oil from greasy pizza boxes; this can interfere with the papermaking process by making paper & cardboard fibres clump together and sit on top of the slurry created at the first stage. Thermoplastics that are prized for their distinct melting and setting points can be ruined by one rogue polymer getting into the mix. Let’s not even broach the issue of contamination by ‘3D waste’ as mentioned by resource management specialist Adam Heriott in this Guardian article (read: soggy cheese, nappies, animals (?!)).

How can we move away from wishcycling?

  • Make friends with the staff at your local recycling service and local/regional/national schemes (e.g. TerraCycle) - they are there to help you and answer any questions you might have about their service.

  • Know your PET from your Polyvinyl chloride - take the time to learn about different materials and the symbols stamped on them, especially different types of plastic. Some local authorities simply separate rigid plastics from flexible ones, rather than asking citizens to be familiar with the 1-7 labelling system.

  • Campaign for more accessible recycling infrastructure (e.g. enhanced collection for those who can’t get out and about or live in rural areas, clearer labelling)

  • Enquire about a company’s recycling policy before buying their products - a lot of people aren’t aware of the corporate responsibility businesses are expected to bear and that a lot will actually recycle your old products as part of their service (e.g. consumer electrical goods, mattresses, furniture etc.)

  • Eradicate the problem at source if you can - use materials that are inherently reusable, thus preventing new and potentially non-recyclable materials from having to be produced in the first place.

Here are some final thoughts - it’s not the end of the world if you’ve wishcycled unknowingly!

Everyone’s probably done it at least once, even the most dedicated of eco-evangelists, and it usually comes from a good place rather than laziness. Let’s view the issue with a growth mindset approach and see it as an opportunity for learning rather than another stick to beat ourselves with. Recycling is far more complex an issue than what goes in what bin on a Wednesday, for example, & it’s something we should be looking to our leaders for to, erm, actually take the lead and make recycling accessible for everyone, as well as instigating grassroots changes ourselves.


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