How local recyclers are reaching out to customers to limit wish-cycling

Thousands of consumer products are made from commodities: raw materials extracted from natural resources.
Photo: Thorben Wengert,

Commodities, in the billions of dollars, are traded on professional and consumer exchanges, from Wall Street to the trading app on your mobile phone. They also are creatively processed and shaped into countless in-demand items, from soup cans, electric guitars, and skateboards to ironing boards, furniture, and motorcycles.

When consumer products are ready to be junked, this creates challenges and significant opportunities for recycling and reuse.

Generally, this has benefited the planet, but it’s also given rise to an unfortunate practice as a consequence of good intentions: wish-cycling. As a result of this unfortunate outcropping of well-intended recycling efforts, local recyclers have started getting the word out about its prevalence and its detriments.

What Is Wish-Cycling?

Simply put, wish-cycling is recycling items that you’re unsure are actually recyclable. In many cases, these items are not, in fact, recyclable. Recycling an item you should have put in a landfill can contaminate the other, actually recyclable, items with which it is collected and processed.

Why Wish-Cycling Is a Bigger Problem Now 

Wish-cycling has been around as long as recycling, even if the term has not. However, while it may only have been an annoyance previously, it has since burgeoned into a big problem. This is for one primary reason: China’s 2017 waste import ban. This ban prohibited 24 different kinds of solid waste from entering the country.

The vast majority of waste, both trash and recycling, from the US winds up in China. Previously, that included a hefty proportion of wish-cycling as well. Once China instituted its new waste import ban, however, many wish-cycled items have become forbidden in waste streams imported from other countries like the US.

When Chinese waste import authorities discover such items in a country’s waste stream, they may fine the country or refuse to accept the entire contaminated waste stream. As a result, countries like the US could be forced to pay large fines or find other ways to dispose of their waste at even greater expense.

US waste exporters inspect waste streams prior to exportation. If they find forbidden items they can decide to discard the entire contaminated stream as trash. This will normally include a large quantity of perfectly recyclable items. This, in turn, counters the entire purpose of recycling, pouring more trash into the environment and doing so at even greater cost.

Commonly Wish-Cycled Items

Many items are commonly mistaken for recyclables and, therefore, frequently wish-cycled.

  • Certain plastic items
  • Caps or lids on glass bottles
  • Certain kinds of ceramic or glass
  • Colored or shredded paper
  • Flattened boxes and containers
  • Hazardous materials or biohazards
  • Plastic bags
  • Scrap metal
  • Takeout and frozen food containers.

How Local Recyclers Are Getting the Word Out About Wish-cycling

Many local communities have started outreach programs to get the word out about the problem of wish-cycling, the need to stop it, and how to do so.

Shakopee, Minnesota

In Shakopee, Minnesota, local officials from the state, county, and city along with a group of trash collectors and recyclers met regularly for over a year to develop clearer and more standardized guidelines to help the public understand what belongs in recycling bins and what belongs in the trash.

At the end of this process, they came up with a list of priority items for the Minnesota public to recycle and a second list of items to avoid recycling. Local leaders were then encouraged to incorporate this new information into public education endeavors.

Yakuma, Washington

In Yakuma, Washington, volunteers from Wesley United Methodist Church gather regularly to help their local recycling center sort incoming materials in an effort to ensure a greater likelihood the items will be properly recycled.

The program not only helps support local recycling efforts but the church as well, because the center makes a small donation to the church for every pound of various items properly sorted and recycled. As a result, the church garners approximately $15,000 per year in donations from the effort.

Portland, Maine

Over the 2019 summer, four Portland-area communities hired interns to inspect recycling left at local curbsides for collection to determine the type and degree of wish-cycling occurring in these areas. Following these inspections, interns helped to educate those communities in Falmouth, South Portland, and Scarborough about their discoveries and the issue of wish-cycling in general.

As a result of this program, rates of contamination in recycling streams went down from around 16 percent to 11-12 percent. At least one community, Bridgton, installed a worker at its transfer station specifically to inform residents what they can and can’t recycle.

How to Stop Wish-Cycling

This is the most important thing people should remember about wish-cycling: if you’re in doubt as to whether or not an item is recyclable, don’t recycle it. Instead, throw it out.

Other ways to help do your part to curb wish-cycling include to:

  1. Clean objects before you recycle them.
  2. Learn the recycling rules in your area.
  3. Leave your recycled items loose. Don’t tie or bag them.


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