Why We All Need to Stop 'Wishcycling'

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Some things were never meant to go in the blue bin.

I have a child who is very enthusiastic about recycling. When he's cleaning up, everything that is not organic waste goes into the blue bin. He protests vehemently when he sees me putting certain kinds of packaging in the trash and accuses me of not caring about the environment when I fish out his misplaced items.

This has led to conversations about what is recyclable and what is not, and how the system with which we're working is flawed. It has also got me thinking about 'wish recycling,' or 'wishcycling' as it's often called. This is the desire to believe certain items are recyclable, even when they're not. Wishcycling is a serious problem, one that Mother Jones described as "fueling the global recycling meltdown" in a recent article, and it's something we all need to address.

The irony is that, in order to recycle more, we have to recycle less – meaning, we have to stop clogging the recycling stream with non-recyclable items, no matter how great we feel about sending them to a 'good' place. Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) have a hard enough job collecting, sorting, baling, and selling recycled goods in a faltering market, and they don't need the added headache of dealing with non-usable waste. From an article I wrote last summer about California's problem with wishcycling:

"The director of the state's recycling program, Mark Oldfield, says, 'It's amazing what people put in recycling bins. Dirty diapers. Broken crockery. Old garden hoses. Some of the worst offenders are old batteries.' Many of the items in recycling bins are contaminated with grease, food, feces (in the form of newspapers used to line bird cages), and mixed materials, such as paper envelopes with plastic windows."

The less sorting people do at home, the lower the recycling rate becomes, due to cross-contamination. Mixing paper with beverage cans results in wet paper, which is non-recyclable. Unwashed plastic food containers, like mayonnaise and peanut butter jars, cannot be recycled either. And many of the items we buy every day were never designed to be recycled at all, like plastic grocery bags, toothpaste tubes, hard moulded plastic packaging, plastic wrap, compostable or biodegradable plastic containers, and construction paper.

Broader standardization is needed, with Mother Jones suggesting we follow the European Union's example in establishing "a national policy that defines what is recyclable rather than leaving that up to municipalities." (The province of Ontario, Canada, is talking about doing this, as well as making manufacturers responsible for the full life cycle of their packaging.) This would eliminate much of the confusion for citizens and make it easier to promote and explain through social media.

But while we wait around for the system to improve, the least we can do is be careful about what gets tossed in the blue bin, and that means resisting the urge to recycle anything and everything. The easier and cleaner we make the MRFs' job, the more of our waste can be repurposed.