It’s a bad habit, but you have the power to stop it.

By Lauren Phillips
March 25, 2020

Thinking you know how to recycle properly and actually being able to do so are two very different things. (It doesn’t help that the rules of recycling seem like they’re always changing, or that they vary by location.) Still, putting an object in the recycling bin and hoping—with the best of intentions, of course—that it can be recycled without double-checking that it truly can be is called wishcycling, or aspirational recycling, and the habit may be ruining your efforts to recycle better or be more sustainable.

“Wishcyclers might ask themselves, ‘should I?’ or ‘shouldn’t I?’ when deciding where to put an item but ultimately place it in that familiar blue bin and assume that the recycling company will know what to do with it,” says Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, a leader in U.S. recycling and non-hazardous waste.

Sound familiar? Whether you mean to or not, you may be tossing items in your recycling bin that can’t actually be recycled. In doing so, you pass the problem of figuring out how to dispose of difficult-to-recycle items on to local recycling facilities, creating more challenges for them.

“At best, these items are pulled out of the recycling stream and sent to the landfill,” Walters says. “At worst, they can cause harm to recycling workers or damage the equipment, causing it to break down. Most importantly, wishcycling creates a lost opportunity for an item that may have been able to be properly recycled in a different way or reused had it been sent elsewhere.”

Anyone going zero waste knows the importance of finding a new use for nearly everything they bring into their homes; the rest of us are likely doing our best to recycle everything possible. Sometimes, though, good intentions can actually be harmful to the facilities we rely on to recycle household basics such as paper, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers. So what can you do to stop wishcycling?

First, one of the main tenets of a zero waste lifestyle applies: Try to reduce the single-use items you bring into your home; for the containers you must bring home, try to reuse them or donate them to a place where they can be used. Walters calls recycling your last line of defense in sustainability, so consider recycling a final option for items you can’t reduce or reuse, not a catch-all for all the single-use items you bring home.

RELATED: 6 Recycling Mistakes You’re Probably Making—and How to Fix Them

Second, do your research. If you’re really concerned about sustainability, find resources that help you figure out which items are truly recyclable. Walters suggests checking Earth911 and Recycling Simplified to learn how to properly dispose of certain items and to better understand what can be tossed into your curbside recycling bin. He says wishcycling often happens because people don’t really understand how curbside recycling works and assume their local recycling facility has the means to recycle nearly anything.

The truth is, most facilities and services focus on everyday materials or consumptive goods (often single-use items) such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles, not metal pots and pans or other long-lasting items. Read up on what your local recycling center does and doesn’t accept and commit to following those rules. With a little self-education and some determination, you can stop wishcycling, too.

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