If you’re like myself, you’ve looked at a paper coffee cup or an empty tube of tooth paste and thought, “Is this recyclable?” before tossing it in the recycling bin, hoping someone, somewhere, would sort it out. People in the waste management industry call this habit “wishcycling.” According to Marian Chertow, manager of the Solid Waste Policy program at Yale college, “a wishcycler wants to do the right thing and feels that the more that he or she can recycle, the better.”
Well, my partner and I hate to break it towards you, but this well-intentioned reflex is doing more harm than good. Not just that, but wishcycling is playing a big role in the current international recycling meltdown.
This well-intentioned reflex is doing more harm than good.
First, a bit about the process. When my recycling is scooped up by a truck every week, it runs to a materials recovery facility (MRF) run by a company called Recology. After the goods travel through the facility’s jungle of conveyor belts and sorting machinery, they are shipped as bales to customers in the United States and abroad, who turn that material into products like cereal boxes and aluminum cans.
But in an effort towards get more members recycling, companies like Recology have come to be victims of his or her own success. In the early 2000s, many neighborhoods switched from a dual-stream method, where plastics and glass, and paper and cardboard, each had their own bins, to single-stream, in which all recyclables go into one bin and the sorting is done at the MRF. But when “we decided to put all the things together, we decided to create a contaminated system,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s nearly impossible, for instance, to put newspaper in a bin with beverage containers without the newspaper getting wet, which makes it unrecyclable.