What’s going on here? 

If only all our waste problems were solved by dropping things in the recycling bin and saying, “that’ll do” and then walking away thinking we’ve done something good today.

This (very) common behaviour is known as wishcycling. It refers to the act of putting incorrect items into the recycling waste stream in the hope that they will end up being recycled. Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it.

Most of the time wishcycling is done with the best intentions. People often default to putting objects in the recycling bin when they’re not sure whether something can be recycled, thinking this is the best option. It turns out the opposite is true.

What does this mean?

Wishcycling is now so common that it’s been entered into the Collins English dictionary. It’s easy to see why: lots of people find recycling confusing. Research from last year found that 80% of UK households aren’t sure how to recycle properly. 

It’s a similar story across the US: the Pew Research Centre found that 59% of Americans think that “most types of items” may be recycled. A big part of the problem is the massive variability between what is and isn’t recycled from area to area. In the UK for example, there are 39 different recycling schemes across 391 local authorities. However, being local authority-led hasn’t stopped Wales becoming one of top recycling countries in the world.

It seems that when we don’t know what to do with waste, we too often choose to put it in the recycling. Research from the British charity WRAP, estimates that 82% of UK households regularly put at least one item of waste to their recycling that is not accepted by the local waste service. This includes items such as single-use coffee cups which often have a plastic film on their inside, as well as most types of plastic film or bags. Make sure to check with your local waste collection service to see what you can and cannot recycle.

Why should we care? 

The critical issue resulting from wishcycling is that it contaminates the recycling process, which can mean recyclable items end up going to landfill. It can also create extra work for the people handling and sorting the materials, and sometimes even damage the machines at recycling centres, which can be difficult to fix.

Fortunately, steps are being taken to limit the amount of wishcycling that takes place across some countries. In the UK, for example, the government has proposed plans to overhaul the recycling system which in part aims to make decision making easier for the public. Similarly, in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has moved to implement a national recycling strategy; one of its key goals is “Reduce Contamination in the Recycled Materials Stream.”

Be Curious! 

Photo @analogicus_shuttout

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