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5 Surprisingly Common Recycling Mistakes You May Be Making

Wishcycling is definitely something most of us do on a daily basis. Here are a few tips to ensure what goes in your recycling bins gets reused.

Written by
Allison Harker

Wishcycling: Can we Take Recycling Too Far?

When I first started recycling around age 10, if I had any doubts about an item, I’d deem it recyclable. Dirty paper plates, used Kleenex, and even old napkins!

I wanted to help save the Earth and was intent on making every little thing count. While this may have been taking the concept a little extreme, most people are probably a little guilty of what Waste Management calls, “wishcycling.” The danger of wishcycling, or trying to include items you are unsure are recyclable, is you are potentially contaminating the other parts of the batch making the whole thing non-recyclable.

If too many non-recyclable items end up in a batch, the whole thing may be sent to a landfill. See, purchasers of American recycling are cracking down on the level of contaminants and which contaminants they are willing to accept. The more contaminants present in a bunch leads to increased amounts of time needed to sort them out, ultimately making the recycling programs themselves more costly.

It's more important now than ever we start fixing our mistakes to ensure the continued future of our recycling programs.

Although specific recycling capabilities can vary from city to city, here are some common mistakes that you can easily fix. 

Skip the Bag

While it may be easier to use plastic bags when transporting recyclables to the bin, you should always keep your items unbagged unless using a bag supplied by the program. If haulers see bagged recyclables during the sorting process, most of the time the bag is immediately sent to the landfill. With unknown contents in the bag and the possibility that it's contaminated with non-recyclable items, workers will likely toss it. 

Most of the time plastic bags are not eligible in recycling programs (even on their own) as they have the potential of wrapping around equipment at the sorting facilities and damaging the machines.

However, this is not the end of the road for your shopping bags! Typically, grocery stores have plastic shopping bag donations near the entrance of their store. (And don't forget to grab your reusable bags before you go shopping!)

Size Matters: the Credit Card Rule

A general rule of thumb: each item must be bigger than a credit card to be recycled. Anything smaller can fall or get caught between the belts of the machinery used at the recycling warehouses. When this happens, the items involved are more likely to be sent to the landfill. 

If you shred paper, do not include the shreddings with your recycling. Most of the time it is not compatible with the machinery. This turns into a big headache for the plant workers when they are trying to sort through everything. Instead, use your shredded paper for composting or starting a fire. 

Not all Plastics are Created Equal 

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky... most plastics are divided up into 7 categories based on their chemical makeup. Some plastics are harder and thus costlier to recycle, and as a result, are not accepted in certain programs. If you’re not sure what’s allowed, make sure to check with your local recycling program.

For example, Chicago will accept categories 1,2,3,4,5 and 7, but not category 6 which includes polystyrene (common in items such as plastic silverware), or styrofoam. 

Most recyclable items will include the category number on the recycling symbol to make it simple to check. Remember, even if an item has a symbol on it, that does not mean it can automatically be recycled in your area. 

Food Contamination

You’re making your favorite pasta dish and after pouring your sauce out of the jar and you immediately place it in your recycling bin without thinking. I know I’ve done this a time or two. Sadly, even if an item is acceptable within the guidelines of a recycling program, it is likely to be rejected if it is contaminated by food or grease. For items such as jars and bottles to be accepted, they must be thoroughly rinsed. That unwashed pasta jar can ruin a whole batch if it breaks and it’s contents touch other items. 

One of the biggest culprits of contamination are greasy pizza boxes. A lot of recycling programs flat-out reject pizza boxes, while others will allow you to remove the soiled parts and recycle your clean cardboard.

Avoiding contamination is essential to ensuring the longevity of our recycling programs. Countries like China that buy our recycling are cracking down on contamination and starting to only accept loads with less than .05% contamination!

Steer Clear of Wax Coatings

Even though one-time use coffee cups are made of paper and seem to be recyclable, a lot of them are coated with a layer of wax. While this helps keep your Starbucks coffee from leaking, this makes the cups unrecyclable! This is why it’s super important to remember your reusable coffee cups.

In addition to coffee cups, paper cartons used for juice or milk may contain a wax layer as well. Wax paper or baking cups are also excluded from recycling. (However, some programs are expanding to be able to accept wax-coated items in the future!) 

Find Your Local Recycling Program

While these are some great first steps to becoming a recycling pro, to learn all the nuances of your area, research your local recycling program. Most cities have websites that are easy to navigate that contain lists and categories of accepted items. 

After you start learning the correct ways to recycle, you won’t even have to think twice about it. The days of wishcycling will be a thing of the past!