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What Is Wishcycling, and How Can It Harm the Environment?

Wishcycling is something we all do without even realizing it. Here's what it is, how it hurts the planet, and what to do instead.

Written by
Ben Korn

It’s a scenario that's happened to every eco-minded consumer: You're standing in front of your trash and recycling bins—takeout container in hand—and deciding whether you can recycle it. "It's made of plastic," you tell yourself. It might even have a recycling triangle on it. So it's fine... right?

Deep down in your heart you want the container to be recyclable. So, rather than risk this item ending up in a landfill, you decide to toss it into the recycling bin. Sound familiar? Well, this act is called “wishcycling"—and it's something we all do even though we shouldn't.

Despite the best of intentions (and often because of them), wishcycling is when sustainably-focused consumers place questionable items in recycling bins in hopes of them being recycled. While doing so comes from a planet-loving place, it often causes more harm than good.

3 Ways Wishcycling Can Be Damaging

1. Wishcycling Wastes Time

The vast majority of recycling plants are run using machines that sort and process recyclables. However, items that are wishcycled often get caught in the inner-workings of the machinery, causing jams. The plant then needs to temporarily shut down until the blockage can be cleared.

2. Wishcycling Wastes Money

A worker removing the wishcycled good is often the best-case scenario. After a slight delay, the plant can begin processing again. However, the non-recyclable material can also cause permanent (and costly) damage to the machinery. Many local municipalities are already looking to make cuts to their recycling programs. Therefore, expensive repairs could give cities the extra justification needed to curtail curbside recycling programs.

3. Wishcycling Creates Extra Waste

In our pursuit to limit the amount of trash going to landfills, wishcycling paradoxically creates even more waste. Oftentimes, recycling centers will have to throw out the whole batch of recyclables if it's contaminated by a non-recyclable item. In an illustrative example, Earth 911 describes what happens to a wishcycled greasy pizza box.

Typically, paper products—including pizza boxes—are mixed with water and turned into a slurry that will be made into new paper products. However, in the case of a greasy pizza box, the oil from the grease sits on top of the slurry, preventing the pulping process and ruining the whole batch.

When you aren't sure about an item, call up your local recycling center. While some are able to process things like greasy pizza boxes, others aren't. That's why it's always better to ask questions than hope for the best.

Tips to Prevent Wishcycling

A good maxim to keep in the back of your mind is "when in doubt, throw it out." That is if you have an item you're unsure of, it's better to throw it out than wishcycle it. But for the consumer who might be willing to take an extra step, there are a few tips from environmental groups (and recycling companies themselves) to help you recycle more effectively.

1. Learn What's Recyclable in Your Area

On the back or bottom of most plastic goods is a small recycling symbol. Many people think the presence of this logo means the plastic is automatically recyclable. But inside the logo is a number with an important meaning. This number speaks to the material that the plastic is made of.

Most jurisdictions can recycle numbers 1 and 2 (the most common plastics like those found in water bottles or milk jugs), but be sure to check your local recycling website to see which other plastics are accepted in your area. Knowing which numbers can be recycled will make you a more judicious recycler and help maintain an efficient and sustainable process.

2. Use Reusable Bags When Shopping

Grocery store plastic bags are a mixture of a few different types of plastic. This means they're not curbside recyclable in most of the United States (you can drop them off at your grocery store, though!). Additionally, plastic grocery bags are one of the most commonly wishcycled items. The simple solution to avoid this mistake: bring a reusable bag on your next grocery trip. And recycle any plastic bags somewhere you know accepts them, like a program at your local grocery store.

3. Clean Off Food Waste

Even fully recyclable items can be soiled by food waste. A good rule of thumb is to clean off all extra food waste, or throw the item out if it can’t be cleaned. For example, a yogurt cup is recyclable, but only after any leftover food is washed off. Just give it a quick rinse before recycling and you're good to go.

This website will teach you about wishcycling through a fun game: