Wishcycling Is Hurting Your Recycling Efforts—Here's How to Fix It

It's the bad habit you didn't know you had.

Thinking you know how to recycle properly and actually doing so are two very different things. (It doesn't help that the rules of recycling are always changing and vary by location.) Still, putting an object in the recycling bin and hoping it can be recycled without knowing for certain is called wishcycling (or aspirational recycling). And the habit may be ruining your efforts to live more sustainably.

"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.

Even if you are doing your best to recycle everything possible, good intentions can actually be harmful to the facilities we rely on to recycle household basics such as paper, cardboard boxes, and plastic containers. Read on to learn the effects of this bad habit and how changing your behavior might make you more effective in your efforts at sustainable living.

The Consequences of Wishcycling

It Makes Life Harder for Recycling Employees

When you toss items in your recycling bin that can't actually be recycled, you pass the problem of figuring out how to dispose of difficult-to-recycle items onto 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 harm recycling workers or damage the equipment, causing it to break down."

It Blocks an Opportunity to Recycle Correctly

"Most importantly," Walters adds, "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."

For example, many recycling plants don't accept certain types of plastic (like plastic bags or containers labeled 4, 5, and 6). But many of these recycling locations work with community programs like the Hefty Energy Bag Program, which accepts many of these items as long as they're placed inside an orange Hefty Energy bag. Items not placed in this specific bag inside the bin probably won't get recycled.

Ways to Stop Wishcycling

Reduce, Reuse, and Make Recycling Your Last Resort

Begin by following one of the main tenets of sustainable living (which is also a major component of the zero waste lifestyle):

  • Reduce the single-use items (like plastic bags, straws, and beverage containers) you bring into your home.
  • Reuse since-use items 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 these items.

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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