We’ve all been there. You’re cleaning up from last night’s pizza dinner and want to get rid of the box, but first you pause to contemplate where it goes.
Putting it in the trash feels wasteful, so your eyes move to the recycling bin.
But then you think: Will the recycling center take it if it’s covered in grease (and maybe a glob or two of cheese)? If they don’t take it, no problem. They can just sort it out from the rest, right?
The answer, unfortunately, is “no.” When you throw something into the recycling on a wing and a prayer, without knowing if it’s really recyclable or not, you’re doing what’s known as “wishcycling.” While always done with the best of intentions, wishcycling can lead to some serious problems.
Improperly recycled materials can damage the machinery at recycling plants and lead them to dump tons of perfectly good recyclables into landfills. It seems hard to believe, but these household mistakes can even have major geopolitical consequences. In 2017 China stopped buying most of our recycling because it was so contaminated. Who knew that your greasy pizza box was an issue of international importance?
The Switch to Single-Stream
The recycling you haul out to the curb every week is most likely all mixed together: paper, plastic and metal all cohabitating peacefully. As you may recall, however, the system didn’t always work like that. When recycling programs first launched in the 1970s, they were all dual-stream, requiring you to separate your recyclables into different containers depending on the type of material.
Most commonly, dual-stream recycling means separating paper products from everything else. Anything made with paper fibers (printer paper, magazines, phone books, cardboard, etc.) goes in one bin, while everything else that can be recycled (plastic bottles, glass jars, aluminum cans, etc.) goes in another. The collectors maintain this separation when they take your recycling to be processed.
That method prevailed until the last two decades, when single-stream recycling gradually became the norm. By 2014, 80% of recycling programs in America were single-stream.
Despite making the process easier for the consumer, single-stream recycling has led to some bad effects. According to Justine Sullivan of earthday.org, the simplicity of single-stream recycling led people to be careless about what they were tossing in the bin:
“Today, the luxury of single-stream recycling means you can toss all your materials … into one bin, shut the lid and thank the recycling powers that be for a swift and painless (dare I say, mindless) process,” she said.
She goes on to note a statistical pattern: “convenient, single-stream recycling correlates strongly with rising contamination rates.”
Single-stream recycling has turned us into a nation of wishcyclers.
The Damage Wishcycling Causes
Wishcycling comes in two varieties: the first is when people try to recycle something that is contaminated but can normally be recycled (like a greasy pizza box), and the second is when people try to recycle something that is simply not recyclable in the first place (like a plastic bag). Both kinds of wishcycling can have a major negative impact on the recycling process.
You might think that the recycling you take out every week is sorted by people, but normally it’s machines doing the work. The machines make the whole recycling process more efficient, but they’re also the reason it’s so vulnerable to the problems caused by wishcycling.
Even something as small as a bottlecap could, under the right circumstances, jam a machine and grind the whole process to a halt. Worse than jamming, improperly recycled items can actually break the machinery. Either scenario means valuable time and money is lost repairing or replacing the machines to get the plant up and running again.
Wishcycling can also lead to massive amounts of waste. They say that one bad apple spoils the barrel, and it’s the same with recycling. One wishcycled item sometimes means a huge batch of perfectly good recycling has to be hauled off to a landfill.
Let’s go back to the pizza box example: When paper products are recycled, they are first mixed with water and turned into a slurry. Grease from pizza boxes will form a pool of oil at the top of the slurry, which the paper fibers won’t be able to separate from. This entire batch will have to be thrown out.
Wishcycling is an increasing problem in this country. The contamination rates in curbside recycling rose from 7% to 25% in the last decade alone! Because of this growing problem, China stopped purchasing most recyclable materials from the U.S. in 2017.
Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, said “it’s important to know why China stopped buying our stuff. Truth is we were sending them junky loads. We got very comfortable with sending them loads that were not pure recyclables.”
Clearly we have to change our recycling habits.
What We Can Do
At the federal level, the U.S. could follow the EU’s lead by standardizing the list of materials that are and are not recyclable. Currently, the regulations about what’s OK to recycle vary by municipality. If you move from one city to another, you have to check your new city’s list of recyclables. With a standardized list as a nation, we could eliminate much of this confusion and reverse the wishcycling trend.
Until the federal laws change, we can take it upon ourselves to learn our local recycling guidelines and follow them when we ponder what to toss in the trash and what to put in the recycling. Earth911’s recycling guide is a great resource if you’re unsure about something you want to recycle.
If you can’t find the answer online, the recycling center of your city, town, or county should be able to help you. When it comes to contamination, make sure everything you’re bringing to the curb is clean. All bottles, cans, and jars should be free of debris and grease.
Next time you find yourself hovering over the trash can and recycling bin with something in your hand, unsure of what to do, ask yourself: Do I know where this goes, or do I just wish I did?
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