Revisiting ‘Wishful recycling’: More harm than good

You read about where your recycling goes in a 2019 autumn Currents piece by Karin Otsuka and Marlena Skrobe, but what can we do to make sure we do more good than harm through our behavior at home? This President’s Day, we’re revisiting a Currents piece by SMEA alum, Nyssa Baechler, on wishful recycling and how more is not always better when it comes to recycling. 

Since this article was first published in 2018, recycling throughout the United States has evolved in an effort to adjust to implications of China’s import restriction on plastic waste. For Washington State, this has meant the need to redesign current recycling programs or develop new plans to reduce waste. 

For now, take a look at Nyssa’s tips and reminders, share them with family and friends, and let’s find ways to be more than wishful recyclers! When it doubt – look it up, especially since the waste management sector is undergoing some changes. If you live in Seattle there is Recycle It App, a smartphone and tablet application that offers information on recycling, compost, and garbage services. Seattle Public Utilities also has an informative website with ‘Where Does It Go?’ flyers in 18 different languages.  

[Karin Otsuka and Marlena Skrobe]

‘Wishful recycling’: More harm than good

By: Nyssa Baechler

What if I told you that, despite my best intentions, I could single-handedly be causing tons of recyclables to end up in a landfill? I am that person that hovers over the recycling, compost, and waste bins while struggling internally to decide what item goes where. I want to feel like I’m saving the environment one piece of trash at a time. So when in doubt, I drop it in the recycle bin. I feel better about myself for “recycling” my item, and it is always better to recycle it than toss it, right? WRONG.

As it turns out, ‘wishful recyclers’ like myself can actually cause more harm than good when it comes to recycling. ‘Wishful recycling’, or tossing items in the recycling bin that you hope are recyclable or think should be, could be contaminating inbound streams of recyclable materials and causing tons (literally, tons) of recycled items to be sent to landfills instead of being recycled. Fret not, because I will help you turn your ‘wishful recycling’ habits into successful recycling behaviors. There is little debate over whether or not recycling is beneficial for the environment; however, the discussion regarding the economics of recycling is ongoing. The recycling industry is just that, an industry driven by profits and bottom lines. What can and cannot be recycled in certain areas mainly pertains to the costs of recycling and prices of raw materials.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE photo- Contaminated recycling streams increase recycling costs by increasing sorting time and decreasing output quality.

Recycling costs in the United States are increasing and recycling rates are decreasing, in part due to the improper acts of consumers like me that are contaminating the recycling stream! What is recycling contamination? It is considered anything other than what is specifically targeted for recycling collection. For example, cardboard is a contaminate if it ends up in the plastics collection bin. Likewise, recyclables that are in the correct bin but contain oil or food residues are also considered contaminants. Contaminated recyclables in the recycling stream slow down manual sorting processes, may potentially break recycling machinery, can degrade quality and market price of recyclable materials, and could even cause recycling service providers to reject an entire load of materials and have them sent to a landfill in order to avoid the aforementioned issues.

Contamination rates increase in areas with single-stream recycling, when sorting isn’t required and all recyclables are placed in the ubiquitous blue bin, but recycling participation rates increase. About a quarter of single-stream recycling ends up in a landfill due to contamination issues, but more people recycle when the process is convenient. This issue is less due to people being lazy and more a result of over-enthusiasm. People, like myself, want to recycle everything and believe that it will end up getting recycled if they just toss it in the blue bin. Although convenient, the huge blue residential recycle bins are actually leading to fewer recyclables being recycled.

Why recycling is not so straightforward


The list of items that can and cannot be recycled is constantly changing due to technological advancements and market price fluctuations of recycled goods and raw materials. Due to budgetary constraints and priorities, items that are recyclable in one city may not be in a neighboring one. How you sort your recycling also differs based on your geographical region. Some cities are more committed to reducing waste and increasing recycling efforts than others and take some of the responsibility off of consumers to sort or deliver items to transfer stations. For example, King County and the city of Seattle focus a great deal of effort and money to reducing waste and provide curbside services and ample resources; therefore, residents are not required to sort recyclables into glass, plastics, and paper bins. Employees in sorting facilities do the sorting for us!

Simply put, what you can recycle and how you need to sort your recyclables depends on where you live. It is your responsibility as a consumer to do the research, because, if you don’t, you could be undermining yours and everyone else’s recycling efforts.

What CAN I recycle (in most places)?

Besides the obvious plastic soda bottles and aluminum cans, what is the recyclability of a few common items?

Your Domino’s pizza box? NO. Take-out containers that are soiled with greasy food residue, including pizza boxes, are not recyclable (but can be composted).

My single-use coffee cup and lid? IT DEPENDS. Nowadays, many coffee shops are utilizing compostable cups, so they belong in the compost bin or the garbage. Most coffee cups are made of paper but are lined with plastic waterproofing that degrades the recycled paper product. So, unless they are explicitly labeled as compostable, toss the cup but recycle the lid. Or just get a reusable mug!

The glass from the dish/pan you accidentally broke? NO. Glass from dishes and heat resistant bakeware are not accepted items.

Your stash of plastic grocery bags? NO, not in your residential recycling containers, but many grocery stores and other locations accept them. You could also check out this blogger’s DIY upcycling ideas!

The soup can? DEFINITELY, but remove the lid first.

Milk and juice cartons? YES! It is a common misconception that you cannot recycle cartons with plastic spouts. Leave the spouts, toss the caps. Don’t flatten them before recycling them, as it can cause confusion on the sorting line.

Styrofoam? NO. No ifs ands or buts about it.

Rethinking Recycling: Some tips and reminders

Just because there is a recycling symbol on it does not mean that it is recyclable. An item accepted in one locale does not make it universally recyclable. There are many nuances to recycling that can be overwhelming; however, here are some helpful reminders that will help make sure recyclables get recycled properly:

  • When in doubt, throw it out! And then research what you should have done so you can do it right the next time. Wishful recycling is usually just contamination. When you move to a different city, county, or state, be sure to research what items are recyclable AND how you should sort them in your residential bins.
  • Rinse and dump before recycling! It doesn’t have to be pristine, but even a little food residue or liquid left in the container could cause it, and other items, to end up in the landfill.
  • Toss items loose into recycling bins. Do not tie up recyclables in plastic bags, because plastic bags themselves are not recyclable (except at certain locations).
  • Not all paper products are treated the same! Waxy and coated cardboards and paper cannot be recycled. Some places require specific sorting, and not doing it correctly may send it all to a landfill.
  • Plastic lids and caps are generally garbage…for now. Plastic caps and lids are made from a different type of plastic that is not recyclable in many places (but maybe soon will be!). Be sure to check your local recycling service provider! In the City of Seattle, plastic and metal lids attached to empty bottles can be recycled; however, those that are loose need to go in the garbage.
  • Bottles, jars, and jugs….Recycle based on shape, not recycling code. This is the best rule of thumb for recycling plastics if you are in doubt. Don’t worry if it’s a #2 or #5; those codes just differentiate types of plastic resin and are no longer generalizable for acceptable items. If it’s shaped like a bottle, it absolutely belongs in your recycling bin. Jars, like peanut butter jars, and most jugs (think milk and laundry detergent) should be cleaned and recycled as well!

The easiest way to avoid the awkward hover over the recycling bin is to reduce your consumption of items that come in single-use packaging. Don’t be a ‘wishful recycler’ – take the time to learn what items can be recycled and try your hardest to change your consumption and recycling habits. These small acts can reduce your carbon footprint and the amount of trash that ends up in the environment.