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.
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.
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.
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?