What You Need to Know About ‘Wishful Recycling’

Learn about what 'wishful recycling' is and tips for stopping it.

Like most people, I try to do my part to care for this wonderful planet on which we live. I often bike home from work, recycle as much as possible, and even went vegan for environmental reasons.

Recently, my idealistic perception that I was doing what I could to help the earth came to a halt when I was introduced to a term I had never heard before: wishful recycling.

Basically, not everything we put in the recycling is realistically recyclable. And I’m not talking about your banana peel — hopefully you know that should be composted or sent to a landfill.

It turns out that, every day, countless people put items like grocery bags, coffee cups, pizza boxes, and other single-use items into recycling bins — wishfully thinking that these items can be recycled.

From recycling bin to landfill

The problem is that not only can these items not be recycled, but they can actually contaminate a bag or bin of recyclable items and prevent those ‘acceptable’ items from ever being recycled.

It’s just not worth the man-power/money to most recycling centers to sort through items one-by-one to maximize the number of items that will be saved from landfills. So they throw the contaminated bins and bags away.

I read about ‘wishful recycling’ in horror — realizing that practically on a daily basis I “recycled” items that would end up in a landfill. I also realized that the majority of these items were single-use.

How many times had I justified forgetting my coffee tumbler by thinking my coffee cup and lid could be recycled or contaminated a recycling bin with my to-go salad container?! I could hear Marlon Brando’s fading voice, The horror, the horror! as the truth sank in. 😱

This problem has been in the spotlight lately with China, one of the world’s main importers of recyclable waste, announcing that it will no longer accept post-consumer plastic and demanding that other materials, such as cardboard and scrap metal, be only 0.5 percent impure. This means that even the slightest amount of food will now contaminate a batch of recycling by these standards.

Not ideal.

So, what can be done about this? Is it even worth it to recycle anymore? I, for one, am not giving up, yet! After all, it’s our planet on the line!


The best thing you can do to solve this problem is actually to reduce your consumption of single-use items in the first place. Instead of hoping your Starbucks cup and straw will be recycled, try to bring your own reusable cup. Consider bringing your own bags to the grocery store. They don’t even need to be “official” reusable bags — any bag or container that isn’t a new plastic grocery bag helps make a difference! Investing in a reusable water bottle can save countless plastic bottles. If you’re really up for a challenge, consider a zero-waste lifestyle.

Be realistic and honest

If you do find yourself with a used Starbucks cup in hand, just be honest with yourself about where it’s going to end up and throw it in the trash. Better to take the L with this one than wishfully tossing it into the recycling bin — only to ruin the chances of the clean items in that bin actually getting recycled. It will also help you be more aware of just how much you send to a landfill.

For a complete list of items that be recycled (and how clean they need to be) consult your local waste management company.

A little extra effort is worth it

Finally, if you can take the time to thoroughly wash food and drink containers before putting them in the recycling, it’s worth the effort! I simply run pasta sauce jars, hummus containers, and other food containers in the dishwasher before putting them in our recycling bin at home. At work, I now rinse my to-go salad container before discarding it. These small acts require minimal efforts, and I know I’m doing the right thing.

Recycling is not a lost cause. Like almost everything, it’s just something that is most effective when done intentionally. As disheartening as it was at first, I’m glad someone rescued me from the delusion that my wishful recycling was making a difference. This change in perspective prompted a change in habits — and I can honestly say that it’s worth it.

So before you put your plastic grocery bags in the recycling, hoping it will erase your guilt of using them in the first place, just…don’t. And maybe even bring reusable ones next week.

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