Blue recycling bin with a close up of the recycling symbol

Are You Recycling or Just Wish-Cycling?

by Liza Semenova

We all know the slogan: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. As it turns out, not all recycling is created equal. Have you ever put something in your recycling bin, unsure if it was the right decision? That’s called wish-cycling. 

While wish-cycling has good intentions, it can often do more harm than good, resulting in slowing down the sorting process and contaminating batches of actually recyclable materials meaning more ends up in the landfills. It may be a straw, a package, or grocery bag - but small amounts of wish-cycling can add up to something much bigger. The United States already produces one of the highest amounts of waste in the world. In 2018, the United States’ waste totaled 292.4 million tons, of which about only 69 million tons

Green recycling bin overflowing with cardboard boxes.

What can you do about wish-cycling?

Learn your local community rules and guidelines around recycling. Each town has its own specifications that usually apply to what is and is not recyclable in your area. Just visit the municipal website or contact your local waste authority to understand the rules and regulations for your town.

Another helpful way to avoid wish-cycling is to “stick with the six” categories of items that tend to most often be fully recyclable. Make sure any packaging you recycle is clean and dry in order to be properly recycled. The most common culprits of contamination are greasy pizza boxes and plastic bags, which get stuck in the storing machines. That means ditching the plastic bags, even the ones in your bin.

“Stick with the Six”

  1. Paper
  2. Flattened Cardboard
  3. Plastic Bottles and Containers
  4. Glass Bottles and Jars
  5. Metal Food and Beverage Cans
  6. Food and Beverage Cartons

Know your Numbers

If you’ve ever taken a close look at your containers, chances are you’ve seen a number tucked into the recycling symbol. These numbers correspond to the type of plastic used, and can give you more information on what’s recyclable and what should go in the trash.

Recycling codes depicted with icons of recyclable items underneath and short descriptions for each code.

#1 - Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE): Most single-use beverage containers are made with this form of plastic. It’s easily recyclable when it comes to the bottles, but it’s best to throw the caps in the trash unless the packaging says otherwise.

#2 - High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Another common plastic that you’ll find in items like milk jugs or laundry detergent. This one is a-okay to place with your recyclables.

#3 - Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or Vinyl (V): These durable and weather-resistant materials are often used for windows, piping and even shampoo bottles. They’re also a red flag, being rarely recyclable.

#4 - Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): This flexible plastic has not historically been accepted by recycling programs, but that’s beginning to change. For now, stick to tossing out this type packaging, which you’ll find in toothpaste and frozen food packaging.

#5 - Polypropylene (PP): Because of its high melting point, PP is often used for liquid containers, like yogurt, syrup bottles and straws. Some programs do accept PP, but throw any loose container caps into the trash.

#6 - Polystyrene (PS): You’ll commonly find PS as styrofoam; it’s most often used for foam or rigid materials. If you guessed this material is not recyclable, you’d be correct. PS packaging like some egg cartons, disposable plates and cups can go right in the trash.

#7 - Other or Miscellaneous: There are many other types of plastics out there that don’t necessarily fit into any of the 6 categories listed above. Generally, these items (such as DVDs and iPods) aren’t recyclable, but make sure to check your local guidelines.

You can find more information on decoding recycling symbols here.

Ultimately the best thing to do is to move-away as much as possible from single-use plastics. Heading out for the day? Grab your personal water bottle and fill it up so you don’t have to purchase on the go. Move those reusable shopping bags from your trunk and into the checkout lane. Trade Ziploc bags for a more sustainable option like Stasher bags. And when in doubt? Throw it out.

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Liza Semenova