Wishful Recycling Actually Creates More Trash

What is the biggest problem facing American recycling centers across the country?

Good intentions.

That’s right, wishful recycling is a major issue, and it’s doing way more harm than good.

What is wishful recycling?

Most of us, when in doubt about the recyclability of an item, will just toss it into the recycling bin. Why? Because it feels like the conscious, eco thing to do. Fess up, we’ve all done it.

Perhaps you feel guilty about throwing that old Christmas wreath and those plastic shopping bags into the landfill. You’d much rather they get recycled, so you toss them in your blue bin.

A wreath is practically paper, right? And those plastic bags have the recycling symbol on them. You pat yourself on the back and forget about it.

It feels way better to optimistically try to recycle, rather than toss items in the trash where they will decompose and pollute our environment for thousands of years, which is why this practice is called “wishful recycling.”

But in reality, those well-intentioned actions could potentially cause tons and tons of recycling to be thrown in the trash.

Recycling centers have strict limitations on what they can and cannot process. By recycling something that your local center cannot handle, even if it has the recycle symbol on it, you are contaminating the waste stream and doing serious damage to your town’s recycling program.

Common wishful recycling culprits include:

  • oily pizza boxes
  • to-go coffee cups
  • shoes
  • compostable items
  • packing foam
  • plastic shopping bags.

Unless there is special machinery present, none of these can be recycled at a standard facility.

Young woman putting a bottle in a recycling bin

Here’s what actually happens when you recycle something that’s not recyclable.

Most of the recycling in the US is single-stream, which means consumers don’t have to sort papers, metals, and various plastics into seperate bins. They all go into the same waste stream at the recycling center, where they are processed.

When someone wishfully recycles, they single-handedly contaminate the stream. Those few non-recyclables that get mixed in can do a lot of damage, not only to machinery and the recycled materials, but also to the profitability of the center.

A recycling center, while viewed as a public service, is actually more of a business. The cleaner and less contaminated the recycling is, the more money the center can make per ton on the raw recycled material.

Wishful recycling lowers the quality of the entire waste stream at a recycling center. In fact, if an inbound waste stream is too contaminated with wrongly recycled items, sometimes the only plausible option (due to expenses) is to toss the entire stream (tons and tons of recyclable material) in the trash.

So your well-intentioned, wishfully recycled items might be causing more products to go into landfills rather than keeping them out.

You can reduce the chance of contamination by familiarizing yourself with your local facility’s recycling regulations.

Generally, it’s a good practice to always throw away any materials which you are unsure about. And the pang of guilt you’re feeling about throwing plastic in the trash? Use that to inspire you to purchase fewer plastics in the future, rather than giving yourself the false-gratification of wishful recycling.

Wishful recycling is ruining recycling centers.

Why is wishful recycling such an issue right now?

Up until very recently, the US sent most of our most contaminated recycling to China–many countries did. Due to their high rate of manufacturing and the ever-present need for raw paper, metal, and plastic materials, they were happy to take recycling off the hands of foreign countries (as poorly-sorted as it was).

China alone recycled about half of the world’s plastic and paper products in 2017.

But in 2018, China decided it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.” Foreign recyclables were often so poorly sorted, contamination of the stream was a regular and costly issue that required immense cost and manpower.

For China, it no longer makes financial sense to sift through the world’s trash in order to produce quality manufacturing materials. They have their own recycling to deal with.

As a result of the ban, facilities across the globe are experiencing huge pile-ups of their least valuable, most contaminated recyclables. And the reason many centers are struggling with the high rates of contamination in their streams? Wishful recycling.

In fact, some recycling facilities have no choice but to incinerate the mounting piles of recyclable plastics.

While this sounds pretty terrible, there may be a silver-lining to China’s ban: the world may be forced to become more environmentally conscious.

For example, the E.U. has proposed a tax on plastic bags and packaging as a way to stymie the growing plastic problem in recycling centers (and in our oceans). In theory, if manufacturers had the incentive to create more sustainable, easy-to-recycle packaging, we may soon live in a greener world.

Global recycling starts on a local level, so keep your blue bins kosher. A little pang of guilt is better than causing your whole town’s recycling to wind up at the landfill.

Recycling isn’t some magical process that cleans and repurposes everything. Get to know what your recycling center can handle and, more importantly, what it cannot. And remember, recycling is not always better than throwing away.

Related on Care2

Images via Thinkstock.


BumbleBrie B
BumbleBrie B2 months ago

Thanks for this! I just shared this with Facebook and Pinterest. What a shock!

Marie W
Marie W9 months ago

Thank you for posting.

Chad A
Chad Andersonabout a year ago

This is a problem I have now been confronted with and I am trying to figure it out.

Ann B
Ann Babout a year ago

some of the BEST plans are NOT always the BEST plans

Naomi D
Naomi Dabout a year ago

BIG problem. Here in El Salvador unfortunately we do not have recyling.

Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a year ago

It takes us days to sort through all this trash. PLEASE be sure you're only recycling recyclables!!

Amanda M
Amanda Mabout a year ago

Last week, I received word in the town newsletter that our local recycling facility will STOP accepting GLASS in the recycling bins effective July 1st (they already don't accept it in the county seat). WHAT. THE. F$#%! Glass is WAY more recyclable than plastic, and it can be recycled and reused in the EXACT SAME WAY repeatedly. Not so much for plastic-once it's recycled, it has to be re-used in a different form, and it has a finite number of "cycles." So NOW what are we supposed to do? I am NOT throwing glass in the trash can! That having been ranted about, I save plastic bags in another bag and take them to the grocery store. Shoes get donated to a group at the town's Green Fest that recycles them into running track material. Styrofoam gets the same recycling destination, as do egg cartons. Grease spots on pizza boxes? No problem-I cut those out when I cut up the boxes for the recycling bin. Not only does it save space that way because the pieces are smaller than the original box, but that way the good cardboard gets recycled. A little OCD maybe, but my religious beliefs stress that we take care of our Mother, and that includes recycling/reusing/repurposing/repairing anything we can so as not to leave more of an impact on Her for future generations. The less we leave in the landfill, the better!

Olga Nycz-Shirley
Olga Nycz-Shirleyabout a year ago


Lesa D
Past Member about a year ago

trash cannot be wished away... it only takes a few more seconds to be mindful when you are recycling!

thank you Jordyn...

Janis K
Janis Kabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.