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Understand Wish-Cycling vs Recycling

The uptick in recycling rates over the past decades has led to a new issue — wish-cycling.

Many businesses and homes have access to municipal recycling services. While it’s a great sign that people want to be more sustainable, the uptick in recycling rates over the past decades has led to a new issue — wish-cycling.   Wish-cycling is the practice of putting inappropriate items in a recycling bin in hopes they can be donated or recycled. However, recycling plants have a limited range of materials they can handle.

What Not to Put in Recycling Bins

People usually have good intentions and are simply misinformed when they wish-cycle inappropriate items. Common wish-cycled products include the following:  

  • Styrofoam
  • Plastic wrappers
  • Plastic soap bottle pumps
  • Food or liquids
  • Batteries
  • Electronics
  • Toiletries
  • Needles
  • Diapers
  • Clothing or shoes
  • Hoses
  • Wires
  • Hangers
  • Kitchen sponges
  • Towels and blankets

Some people place clothes or backpacks they want to donate in the recycling bin. Others do not know the difference between recyclable products and trash. One study found that 24% of personal care items — like razors, toothpicks and cotton swabs — ended up in the recycling bin in the U.K. city of Portsmouth.   Unfortunately, standard recycling plants can only process certain materials. What happens to trash that ends up in a recycling plant?

The Hazards of Wish-Cycling

Putting the wrong items in recycling causes several issues.

1. Wasting Precious Metals

Electronics must go to an e-waste recycling center because they contain toxins that are hazardous to handle. They also contain tiny amounts of precious metals — like lithium, gold and copper — that specialized machinery must remove.   These elements are in high demand because they reduce the need for further mining and processing. Including electronics with household recyclables means precious metals may end up in landfills.

2. Spreading Disease

Among kitchen sponges and dishcloths, 10% contain salmonella bacteria that can cause infections. Items like needles, razors and diapers can also pose health risks to maintenance workers, so keeping worker safety in mind when putting things in the recycling bin is vital.

3. Damaging Equipment

Debris like wire hangers or plastic film can clog recycling machinery that is ill-equipped to handle it. If garbage damages machinery, operations must stop until technicians can perform repairs. Malfunctioning equipment can also pose a safety risk to maintenance workers.

4. Wasting Valuable Time

Recycling center technicians already have physically and mentally difficult jobs. Creating a new task for them to perform — picking out potentially hazardous debris from the recycling — adds unnecessary stress to their day.   It also wastes time workers could otherwise spend processing recyclable materials like glass and plastic bottles. Ultimately, reducing the efficiency of recycling centers means technicians recycle less material overall.

5. Compromising Actual Recyclables

Just as one bad apple spoils the whole bunch, one of the biggest problems with wish-cycling is that it frequently ruins entire batches of otherwise recyclable materials. The U.S. recycles just 32% of its waste, but that number would be much higher if people put only recyclables in the recycling bin.   Manufacturers have strict quality controls for the recyclable materials they purchase. They often require a block of aluminum cans, for example, to contain only a certain percentage of contaminants like plastic wrap or cotton. Recycling technicians cannot spend hours meticulously sorting out the garbage, so they often end up discarding an entire batch of waste intended to be recycled.

What to Put in Recycling Bins

Different municipalities accept various materials in their recycling bins. For example, some cities accept plastic bags while others do not. In general, however, most recycling services accept:  

  • Unbroken glass
  • Aluminum and tin cans
  • Cardboard packaging
  • Paper
  • Plastic bottles without lids
  • Books

Breaking the Cycle

The list of materials most recycling plants can take is rather narrow, and that can lead to wish-cycling out of frustration. Ultimately, companies need to design products with disposal in mind. It should not be up to consumers — who often have little choice in what type of packaging they buy — to be responsible for global waste management.   As frustrating as wish-cycling is, it’s a sure sign that people want a more sustainable, circular economy. It’s high time manufacturers listen.

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