The woes of wish-cycling
Posted: November 15, 2023 | Word Count: 532
Wish-cycling (v.) – the well-intentioned but unfounded belief that something is recyclable when it is not.
Most consumers have the best intentions when it comes to recycling. In recent years, there’s been a strong push for a more circular economy, where old materials are repeatedly reused, recycled or repurposed. While recycling rates continue to rise, some bad habits continue to hinder significant growth. In comes “wish-cycling,” when non-recyclable items are put into the recycling bin in hopes that they can or will be recycled.
The term wish-cycling was first used in 2018 when China launched tighter restrictions (Operation National Sword) on the allowable level of contamination in bales of recyclables. Wish-cycling negatively impacts the recoverability of true recyclables.
There are several reasons why one might be a wish-cycler. One is the infamous “recycling” symbol. The “chasing arrows” symbol is often linked to recycling, but the symbol is not always indicative of an object’s recyclability. For example, expanded polystyrene — or Styrofoam — often has the chasing arrows triangle on it, but is not readily recyclable. This symbol indicates the type of plastic something is made from and is called a Resin Identification Code.
Another reason is confusion between reuse and recycling. While items such as household appliances, electronics and toys could find a second life if given to a charity or secondhand store, they will cause problems if placed in your recycling bin.
For example, recycling centers across the nation are experiencing a significant increase in fires as a result of improperly recycled electronics, which should never be placed in your recycling bin.
Cordless electronics are one of the leading causes of fires in the recycling stream due to the volatility of their lithium-ion batteries. These batteries can cause fires if subjected to adverse conditions, punctured or smashed. All rechargeable electronic devices must be returned to participating retail stores or dropped off at electronics collection drives for recycling.
The reality of wish-cycling doesn’t lie solely on the consumer. It may also be due to varying recycling rules at the state or county level, or what materials individual recycling service providers may accept.
While there isn’t a standardized guide for recycling, Republic Services’ Recycling Simplified Guide highlights several materials that are accepted everywhere. Paper, cardboard, metal cans and plastic bottles or jugs labeled #1 and #2 are always recyclable. If consumers focus on these “fundamental recyclables,” the impact of recycling these materials is far greater than most realize. For example, a study by the Aluminum Association confirmed that 92% of an aluminum can is remade into a new can.
Proper recycling, no matter how small, can make a positive difference, and recycling doesn’t require much effort if consumers remember a few simple rules. Even if intentions are right, wish-cycling can negatively impact the recycling process and cause valuable recyclables to be sent to the landfill.
If you’re unsure whether something can be recycled, it’s best to remember, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Or better yet, “When in doubt, find out!” Check with your local service provider for specific recycling information for your area. Following a few simple rules can lead to less waste and a more sustainable world.