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How to Cut Down on “Wishful Recycling”

Everyone knows that recycling is an easy way to help keep the planet clean. When in doubt, many people will just drop an item in the recycling bin rather than the trash can. However, even those who have the best of intentions with recycling can actually be contributing to more garbage to piling up in landfills.

People like this have been termed “wishful recyclers,” who unfortunately do more harm than good with their recycling habits. Wishful recycling is when an item is tossed in the recycling bin in hopes that it is recyclable. However, these items could “contaminate” other recycling items and cause them to end up in the landfill instead of being recycled. Contaminated recyclables are any items outside the specifically targeted items for a recycling collection (such as cardboard ending up in a plastics collection).

Contaminated recyclables can cause many issues when they enter the recycling stream, including slowing down manual sorting processes, potentially breaking recycling machinery, and even degrading the quality and market price of recyclable materials. Because the recycling industry is driven by profits and bottom lines, not saving the earth, contaminated items being mixed in with recyclable items would cause an increase in sorting time and a decrease in output quality, thus affecting profits. It is easier and less expensive to dump the whole lot than take the time to sort it. Unfortunately, partly due to wishful recyclers who contaminate the recycling stream, recycling costs in the United States are increasing and recycling rates are decreasing.

There is a catch-22 with this issue. Contamination rates increase in areas with single-stream recycling, where sorting is not required because all recyclables are placed in same bin. However, recycling participation rates are higher in these areas because the process is much more convenient for participants. Contamination arises in this situation because people recycle everything, thinking that it will end up being recycled if it is placed in a recycling bin. While convenient for those who want to recycle, this convenience is actually causing more recyclable goods to end up being contaminated and dumped in the landfill.

What Can Be Recycled?

Part of the problem goes beyond wishful recyclers. The list of items that can be recycled is constantly changing because of market price fluctuations and technological advancements. In addition, location can impact what can and cannot be recycled. In some areas, budgetary constraints or city priorities could cause items that are recyclable in one city to not be accepted in another city. Thus, the responsibility of knowing what is or is not recyclable falls on the consumer.

As a general rule of thumb, plastic soda bottles and aluminum cans can be recycled. Pizza boxes or other containers soiled with greasy food residue cannot be recycled. Plastic bags cannot be placed in recycling bins, but many grocery stores are now accepting them. Milk juice cartons can also be recycled, but toss the plastic lid first.

If you want to avoid being a ‘wishful recycler,’ take the time to learn what items can and cannot be recycled, then try to change your consumption and disposal habits to reduce your carbon footprint.

 

Eco concept with recycling symbol and garbage on wooden table background top view