By Heather Nortz

PLASTICS Associate, Sustainability and Materials

“Wish-cycling” describes when a well-intentioned person puts an item that “seems recyclable”, into the recycling bin—with the hope or wish that it will be recycled—when they really have no idea whether or not their local recycler accepts such items. It’s a “feel good” sustainability gesture that often ends up defeating the purpose of recycling. According to Waste Management, about 25% of all goods sent to U.S. recycling facilities in 2018 ended up in a landfill due to contamination from non-recyclable materials in the recycling bin.

Recycling and utilizing recycled content are important components of the circular economy and, if done properly, can be hugely beneficial in reducing loss of plastic to the environment by redirecting it into new products. It can also help in reducing natural material extraction by replacing virgin resin, which requires natural resources to produce, with recycled content in manufacturing products.  

How to avoid wish-cycling

The consumer’s role in this system is to accurately sort non-organic waste into two piles: recycling and garbage. To do this successfully, people should understand two factors that directly influence the recyclability of materials—machinery and the marketplace.

Machinery—Not all recyclers are equipped with the same machinery. Therefore, they cannot all collect, sort, and process the same types of materials. Recyclers must spend time and resources sorting out all materials that cannot be physically processed in their facilities. If unrecyclable items are missed in the sorting process, they will likely either:

  • Increase contamination within bales of recycled content produced by the machinery, reducing their value, cutting into the profits of the recycler, and decreasing the end-market demand for the recycler’s output.
  • Damage the machinery and cause a halt in operations, which consumes time, resources, and cuts into profits, making the recycler a less effective contributor to the circular economy.

Marketplace—Organizations that buy recycled content also determine which materials are financially viable to collect, sort, and process. Recyclers do not want to waste time and resources collecting, sorting, and processing material that will not be purchased by an end market. And for materials that are desired, it is important to keep contamination rates low. For example, if a bale of pliable plastic water bottles made from PET plastic is highly contaminated with pieces of ABS (a hard, impact-resistant plastic), the PET bale is considered to be of lower quality and is less likely to be purchased by a manufacturer. That also makes it more likely to be part of that 25% of recycled content that winds up in the landfill.

How to navigate recycling rules

Recyclers only accept materials they can effectively collect, sort, process, and sell. That means each recycling facility has a different accept/reject list. That can result in confusion as these lists are not well advertised or sought out by consumers. Such lists are also very location-specific and subject to change.

Though recycling can be confusing, there are things you can do to avoid being a wish-cycler and act as a helpful player in the waste management system:

  • Find out who sorts your recycling. This information can be found either on your waste bill or on your local government’s website.
  • Once you know who your sorter is, check what materials they accept. Since their accepted materials list may change, check back annually. Use Earth Day (April 22) as your annual reminder!
  • Encourage your office and/or apartment building to post your recycler’s accept/reject list on or next to recycling bins.

Repeating these three steps once each year will ensure that you, and those around you, reduce those wish-cycling tendencies.

Bonus tip! Check which of your local grocers and retailers participate in store drop-off programs for materials that local recyclers do not accept, like plastic bags.

Improving recycling rates and the creation of high-quality recycled content are just two components of creating a circular economy. The plastics industry is also concerned with ensuring that this recycled content is put to good use. One way we, at PLASTICS, encourage this circularity is through the Re|focus Sustainability Innovation Awards. We would like to recognize the 42 companies that collectively submitted 52 excellent innovations this year and give a special congratulations to our 5 winners!