Wishcycling: when good intentions go wrong


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?

In pursuit of zero waste dental floss

zero waste dental floss

I floss my way through some zero waste dental floss brands, and then I get on my soapbox.

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a while. It feels…unimportant. Dental floss quite literally operates in dark crevasses.

And yet, I can recall feeling so strongly about floss at one point that I seriously considered developing a biodegradable option myself. I also bothered to buy and test these zero waste floss options, so…let’s not dismiss it. Let’s talk about it.

A ‘hot’ need is so powerful it catches you up and makes you consider doing crazy things, like online shopping, or buying laundry balls. I once bought a laundry ball at a green living expo, then realized I was totally duped by my own desire never to use laundry detergent again. I did it again more recently with the CoraBall to catch microfibres from my washing machine. In hindsight wished I’d analyzed the ‘research’  more closely. It’s not that these items don’t work (well, jury’s out on the CoraBall), it’s that I didn’t need a CoraBall as much as I thought I did when the crowdfunding campaign appeared in my Facebook feed. Don’t dismiss these hot needs in yourself, or others, but try to identify them for what they are. For these are the circumstances where greenwash and unsubstantiated claims prey on our good intentions. So my caveat to this post is this: if you’re looking for a zero waste floss brand, please read all the way to the end. Onward. 

Zero Waste dental floss brands I’ve tested

This isn’t a place about products and brands, but it is about sharing useful information, which may include items I’ve tried and liked (or not). And although I’m all for minimizing the scope of toiletries to save time, money and packaging, I’ll never give up dental floss. Floss is more than a spinach remover. It helps prevent gum disease caused by bacteria accumulating below the gum line, which can eventually cause bone loss (eek).

I’m always on the lookout for lower waste floss, with recyclable or compostable packaging and product. Until recently, nothing much was worth recommending.   

I have normally spaced teeth plus a permanent retainer (just a metal bar) on the inside lower front teeth, under which I need to be able to shimmy the floss. Here are some options I’ve bought with my own funds and personally tested over the past year.  It would be impossible for me to meaningfully compare production methods, so that’s not evaluated here.

The control: any drugstore floss

Floss you buy in any drugstore is cheap, functional and made of nylon coated in who-knows-what kind of Teflon family chemicals (remember this story?). The plastic outer is technically recyclable, but in practise I bet it’s not often. It costs about $3 AUD/100m.

Radius silk floss individual sachets

Radius offers compostable silk floss embedded in single use paper sheets that you tear to open. The floss breaks if you pull too hard and it doesn’t work well under my permanent retainer. Twenty sachets come in a slim cardboard box. I think it was $4.20 CAD for 20 sachets? I bought these a long time ago in a country far, far away. This is $0.21/day option. I think. Radius also sells  silk floss in a more traditional container. That container is plastic and not refillable, so I’m not really sure of the point. 

Noosa Basics dental floss with charcoal

Noose Basics makes a waxed bamboo thread. UPDATE: their website now indicates that the floss includes polyester threads. This isn’t the strongest floss and it sometimes breaks, although I’ve learned to be more gentle. Thumbs up to this Aussie company for trying something innovative with packaging. The cardboard point of sale packaging holds the spool, there is no additional container within. The spool still uses a small plastic ring and sometimes the floss gets tangled, but overall I like it and I can use it easily under my permanent retainer. I hope the producer can find economies of scale to the cost down, because only zero waste obsessives would pay a ransom of $12.95 for 35m. I’d also like to see more floss in each container. As it stands, we really need to compare three packages of Noosa Basics floss to one drugstore floss- the latter packs significantly more into the one unit, and is effectively ‘concentrate’. I can see why Noosa Basics doesn’t, as it would make the bamboo floss seem shockingly expensive (more on that below), I’m just saying, using more of other resources to avoid plastic is an unintended, yet common, outcome to watch out for. 

Dental Lace

Dental Lace offers a thick silk thread coated with candelilla wax. The floss is compostable and the glass and metal container is refillable with spools that come in plant-based plastic sachets. The thread has no inner spool which eliminates that small bit of plastic – smart. My only critique is that there is a purely decorative plastic sticker on the outside of the package whose only destination is landfill once you peel it off, as I did. Also, the price. This was expensive at $8.75 for 60m plus shipping.

Dental floss, opportunity cost, and what it takes for zero waste

You’re not failing at zero waste if you use conventional floss for ease or financial reasons. I’d be more annoyed if you sacrificed future dental health to save this small amount of plastic. A single takeout container probably uses the same volume of plastic as a packet of floss that’ll last 6 months*. Not to mention, we sometimes create more waste by shopping ‘low waste’ when we buy online. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for and seek out better options, supporting upstart businesses along the way. I’m asking that we keep things in perspective and question what we think we have to do to participate in the zero waste movement. It’s not all or nothing. 

It’s also good to interrogate the overall product design and volume of materials used. Most of the time, product packaging isn’t created with the  environment or practicality in mind, but to meet a demonstrated, and ideally hot consumer need. Packaging is shaped in response to the way a consumer perceives a product. And of course, you know I would say we’re an irrational species that respond to stimuli then make up a story to explain our choices, not the other way around.  

That said, if you do want to make the switch, Dental Lace and Noosa Basics are the best I’ve tried to date. UPDATE: I no longer recommend Noosa Basics, as it contains polyester thread. Apples to oranges though, they cost way more than conventional. Per 100m, you’re paying $37 for Noosa Basics and $14 for Dental Lace, compared to $3 for your basic drugstore variety. With my curiosity satisfied, I’ll floss my way through my stockpile of Dental Lace refills before I decide if it’s a priority for me to reorder. 

I can’t see most people going out of their way and paying more to reduce this part of their waste stream, unless extremely motivated, like I have been on occasion. If it’s challenging to find low waste floss easily and locally, I’d suggest we’re better off focusing on reducing waste in other areas of life until it is. We work to zero waste, we don’t never make waste. Big difference.

What do you think – is reducing dental floss waste worth it, or destined to be just another scapegoat for the inaccessibility of a ‘zero waste lifestyle’?

*20cm used per floss means five flosses per metre, so Noosa Basics should last me 175 days if I floss once a day.  

The lazy way to make reusable makeup remover cloths

zero waste eye makeup remover pads

We humans tend to criticize laziness as a character flaw.

I however, believe selective laziness can be useful. Case in point – if you’re moving to reusables for makeup removal, there’s no need to buy anything new or use a sewing machine. The lazy way is to cut one very old tee shirt into squares and store in an old jar in the bathroom, unhemmed. I’d love to learn how to sew, but that’s apartment space and a skill set I don’t have.

To remove makeup, I usually rub a few drops of coconut or jojoba oil (check the bulk page for tips on where to source in Sydney) into my face and eye area with clean fingers. Then I wipe clean with one of the squares wetted with warm tap water. Used wipes go into a small container that doubles as a pre-soak vessel. I soak the dirty wipes in hot soapy water to lift some of the grime before I add them to a towel wash.

zero waste eye makeup remover pads

zero waste eye makeup remover pads

Why not just use normal facecloths?

I sometimes do, but they’re larger than I need for the minimal makeup I wear – mostly just mascara, liner and concealer. I don’t love reusing the same towel over the course of several evenings since terrycloth is too thick to dry from sopping wet and all I can think of is bacterial growth.The smaller squares of cut tee shirt fabric have the perfect amount of surface area to clean my face, and using them instead of facecloths has a side benefit of reducing towel laundry.

zero waste eye makeup remover pads

What about those cute fluffy makeup remover rounds you can buy?

Buying new fluffy white cotton pads to repeatedly wipe dark substances off your face makes as much sense as a bike mechanic wearing a white tee-shirt. Why make life difficult? My pile of not-white-anymore cloths works best for me.

From makeup wipe, to cleaning cloth, to the compost

When they eventually become too grimy even for my face, I use them for even grubbier tasks, like dusting ledges or houseplant foliage or polishing shoes. If it’s cotton fabric and I’m not using them with any chemicals I wouldn’t want in my soil (I use vinegar, castile soap and bi carb), I can eventually compost the rags. I wouldn’t do this with blends or synthetics though.

Textile recycling isn’t an actual thing (yet)

While there are some potential benefits to what retailers like H&M and Uniqlo are doing to offer clothing collection boxes into their stores, the reality of all the research and development so far is that we’re far from a place where textiles can be recycled. It’s more accurate to categorize this process as clothing ‘down-cycling. It’s the same as most other collection donation services – a portion of what is useful and clean is sold in-country, more is sent abroad to be sold or burned, and what can’t be sold might be turned into industrial rags. We can do better by buying less to begin with, using our clothing longer and downcycling at home. My tee shirt can be demoted from being worn outside the home to sleepwear, and only then to rag.

zero waste eye makeup remover pads

It’s good to be lazy sometimes

What we buy is inexorably connected to what we throw away, so I’m fascinated by the many ways that we can enrich our lives without buying a thing, or by simply reframing waste as treasure. Less stuff to buy means less chasing our tails to earn money to try to afford what we don’t need anyway. More time to laze about with friends, in the kitchen, and in the garden. Ironically, frugality – not buying new things – is what can help us live more full lives.

Your regular pen might be secretly refillable

refillable pens

Sometimes cheap everyday pens can be converted into refillable pens. Here’s how.

I need the touch of pen to paper. I’m always jotting down notes and leaving to-do lists everywhere. Pencil? No thanks. I resent the the carbon smudges, the ever-in-flux nib diameter and the need for a sharpener. Also, did you know that erasers are often made of vinyl? The pen is my tool of choice, and a necessary evil at work and in my day-to-day.

zero waste pen
Hey look, my pen matches my reusable coffee cup!

I say evil, since many pens are made cheaply of plastic and designed to be tossed once the ink’s run dry. The exception are those marketed as refillable (and perhaps fountain pens). I use a refillable model from Parker.

To reduce waste to landfill at my workplace, we collect spent pens for recycling into a Terracycle box bought from Officeworks here in Australia. It’s an additional cost to the business that luckily doesn’t have to be done often.

Refillable pens are everywhere, if you know where to look.

I recently discovered this clever little hack care of my coworker, a man who’s used one leather-bound Faber Castell refillable pen for the past twenty years. One day he sorted through our pen recycling box, and from the hundred or so dead pens in the box, he brought three to my desk and showed me a neat trick.

He unscrewed each one and placed the ink cartridges side by side. Even though the pens all looked different on the outside, the ink cartridges were all the same design. Furthermore, they were exactly the same as those in my refillable Parker pen. They were all secretly refillable!

Radical resource efficiency and less plastic. 

I marked the three rescued pens as refillable and now we only need buy the refill cartridges instead of recycling the whole pen. Although Parker refill cartridges aren’t the cheapest at about $9 each, they do write beautifully, last a while – for a writing distance of 3500m to be precise. They’re made mostly of metal, which means they’ll be more valuable when recycled at their end of life. After daily use for nearly a year, my pen has only recently run out of ink. This is not an ad for Parker and I’m certain there exist other high quality brands made of metal.

Refilling our pens reduces material use, plastic production, and our pen recycling cost, without requiring much of a change in behaviour – we will still buy office supplies after all. In Paul Hawken’s language, it’s radical resource efficiency.

The next time you run out of ink, check inside to see whether it can be your new refillable pen. And if this idea sounds like a bridge too far, another innovative solution is the recycled and recyclable Enviroliner pen from Close the Loop. The pen is made with the plastic and leftover ink from printer cartridges collected by Planet Ark.

Now you tell me – what’s your favourite way to minimize waste in the office?