Wishcycling: when good intentions go wrong

wishcycling

Wishcycling is wishful thinking recycling. It’s when we put things in the yellow bin that we hope or assume are recyclable, but aren’t.

Our eagerness to divert from landfill (or inattention) can lead to fouled up machinery at processing facilities and unsafe conditions for workers. Putting the wrong things in the recycling bin also makes it likely the load will end up in landfill. So we achieve nothing and pay twice. This threatens the viability of our recycling infrastructure.

Would it surprise you to know that I’ve been guilty of wishcycling? We sometimes buy same day discounted trays of meat, since I can’t stomach the thought of all those growing resources, plus an animal’s life, wasted. But in spite of the familiar recycling symbol stamped onto the back of the tray, black trays aren’t recyclable at the Material Recycling Facility (MRF). The machinery can’t ‘see’ the black against the black conveyor belt.

What I’ve been doing is jeopardising my council’s kerbside recycling program, with the best of intentions. More examples of wishcycling include plastic bags, takeaway coffee cups, nappies and syringes – none of these by me, I assure you.

coffee cup
This cup is sad because he’s not recyclable at kerbside.

We’re making guesses, and we’re wrong around 10% of the time. which is 9.5% too much of the time for the Chinese markets we’ve relied on to process much of our recycling bin contents.

Why is recycling so confusing?

There are many factors making it difficult for us to get recycling right.

We learn recycling behaviours as children, then move to different council areas or even countries as adults. In Sydney, relatively small council areas with different waste contracts make it hard to keep up if you move suburbs. It’s hard to forget a rule we’ve internalised.

Then of course, many of us live in multi-unit apartment buildings, where anonymity makes it tricky for councils to provide targeted feedback to a household that’s not getting it right.

And then we have manufacturers and packaging designers creating stuff that is just hard to recycle. By creating packaging from more two recyclable materials fused together, or by using materials that can’t be recycled kerbside or even through special alternative streams.

And how about the numbering printed on the bottom of containers? These indicate the resin type, not necessarily that something can be recycled. Recyclability depends on size, composition and cleanliness as well as the technical recyclability of the material. For example: a pizza box both might or might not be recyclable, because it depends whether it’s greasy or not. You can recycle the top, if it’s pristine, but a greasy box – even a tiny amount – should go to the worms or in the red bin. Pizza boxes should have this printed on them. Oh and obviously, if your MRF can’t process the material, it doesn’t matter if your packaging meets all the other requirements.

In Sydney I’ve noticed that commingled recycling is common. Where I grew up in Vancouver, we’ve source separated recycling as far back as I remember. How do the systems compare? Here’s a comparison of contamination rates in cities across Canada and how it relates to whether a city asks residents to commingle or sort. Commingling is intended to increase participation rates in recycling, but at what cost?

But it’s not all bad news.

Why the recycling crisis could be a good thing

There is a silver lining to all of this, as I see it. Wishing for something doesn’t make it true, but our wishes demonstrate desire. As Les Robinson reminds us, people usually want to do the right thing – sometimes it’s just not that clear what the right thing is. Wishcycling tells me that most of us value recycling as a service and wish more materials could be diverted from landfill.

Also, I’m buoyed that we’re starting to pay attention and talk about solutions. Contamination isn’t a new problem, we just didn’t have to pay for it before. The news of the Chinese Sword policy, limiting the level of contamination to a near impossible 0.5%, has rippled into mainstream media. No surprise, since it affects every single Australian. Thailand has made overtures about following suit on some categories of waste. Why is this good news? Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to realise there’s a need for change.

Cleaner recycling streams create opportunities

Recycling really depends on there being a market for a material as a manufacturing input, whether it’s a tire, food scraps or a plastic bottle. The cleaner the stream, the more likely something useful can be made out of it.

Cleaning up our recycling stream opens the door to easier recycled product manufacturing, so we can buy more recycled products.

There are plenty of reasonable things we can do with plastic. For example, Replas makes fenceposts from soft plastics that last longer and need less maintenance than their wood predecessors. Another example: my parents bought two recycled plastic lounge chairs four years ago and they’re in pristine condition. Waste was reused, they were made in Canada, and no trees were harmed.

recycled plastic chairs

Researchers at UNSW are exploring interesting ideas for local recycling, such as micro-factories. These could provide stable employment opportunites in regional areas, while dealing with municipal and other problem wastes (perhaps ocean trash).

The rise of non-MRF single stream recycling schemes is more cause for hope. TerraCycle empowers brands with products that can’t be recycled through a MRF to offer recycling schemes directly to customers. I’m talking about toothpaste tubes, contact lens, and makeup containers. Aussie eyewear company Dresden is recycling milk tops and ghost fishing nets into modular frames.

How to counteract wishcycling

First, check your own knowledge base.

  • Get familiar with your council area’s dos and don’ts as a first step. If the info is confusing or has big gaps, don’t be afraid to contact the council to ask for clarification.
  • Some councils will offer recycling workshops or tours of the recycling facility, where you can see how recycling is processed.
  • City or regionally focused Zero Waste groups on Facebook are a fount of local knowledge about alternative recycling schemes.
  • Recyclingnearyou.com.au is a great resource
  • Keep learning in any way you can. I’m deeply engaged in the topic of waste, but still wrong from time to time.

Next, if you notice there’s lots of wishcycling happening in your unit block, you may be able to download signage from your council with the big no-no items, like plastic bags. It won’t solve the problem completely, but may help build knowledge and familiarity for how things are done.

More good news: the Australasian Recycling Label is coming

On the horizon is the launch of the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), the result of a collaboration between Planet Ark and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation. The ARL is a labelling scheme to end confusion by making packaging recycling and disposal options more consistent and clear across the country. Look for the label on everyday products this spring.

Source: https://planetark.org/recyclinglabel/index.cfm
Source: https://planetark.org/recyclinglabel/index.cfm

The program is voluntary, but so far response from industry has been positive. Many brands want to improve recycling outcomes and now they have a tool. Part of the process is a feedback loop to packaging designers. They’ll get a better idea of the impact of their packaging choices and have the opportunity to design for recyclability from the beginning. For example, using a clear rather than black meat tray.

Tell me, what confuses you about recycling?

A campground nudge that reduces water waste

zero waste camping

Showers on camping trips are a quick affair where I don’t bother washing my hair with soap. There’s no point when we’re in and out of the saltwater all weekend.

However, some campers take the longest showers imaginable, my bugbear. Long showers lead to water waste and lineups. So I appreciated this ‘nudge’ I noticed at a campground on the Central Coast of NSW.

A few years back economist Richard Thaler (who later won the Nobel Prize) and Cass Sunstein co-wrote a book called Nudge about choice architecture. The book examines the ways we choose from what is available to us, even if it’s not necessarily in our best interest. Our environments either discourage or encourage behaviours. The authors argue for adjusting defaults to encourage better outcomes where it’s very important for us to make better choices. Superannuation savings here in Australia is an example of this type of liberal paternalism. This water-saving camp shower setup is another.

water waste

The shower at this campsite is free for campers to use, but stops after four minutes. It only restarts after a three minute break. The sign communicates that it’s not broken when that happens.

Before, one could take an unlimited, uninterrupted shower of 10 or even 20 minutes. The tap was on until you chose to turn it off. The default before enabled water waste.

Now, the shower turns off by design after a reasonable wash time. Theoretically a long but interrupted shower is possible, if you’re willing to wait. We still have a choice, but the default is to be conservative with water.

zero waste camping

If we assume the shower flow is eight litres per minute – generous, given that many shower heads still use 12 – 22 litres per minute – a 20 minute shower would use 160 litres of freshwater. With the new defaults, it’s extremely unlikely someone will use more than 32L per shower. Small change, big savings. And all because we humans are wired to respond to the choices available.

Have you seen any good examples of nudges lately?

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!