Advocates of curbside recycling are trying to get rid of contamination. Specifically, they are trying to combat “wishcycling.” This is a term for families’ tendency to put into the recycling bin such non-recyclable materials as plastic bags, Styrofoam, food waste, and clothing.
Writing on The Conversation website, Jessica Helges and Kate O’Neill observe:
“Contaminating the waste stream with material that is not actually recyclable makes the sorting process more costly because it requires extra labor. Wishcycling also damages sorting systems and equipment and depresses an already fragile trading market.”
Although contamination by non-recyclable materials has always been a problem for curbside recyclers, China’s 2018 decision to drastically reduce its waste imports left many local governments and companies with piles of material they couldn’t get rid of.
Helges and O’Neill say:
“Wishcycling entered public consciousness in 2018 when China launched Operation National Sword, a sweeping set of restrictions on imports of most waste materials from abroad. Over the preceding 20 years, China had purchased millions of tons of scrap metal, paper and plastic from wealthy nations for recycling, giving those countries an easy and cheap option for managing waste materials.”
“Huge waste management companies and small cities and towns have launched educational campaigns on this issue. Their mantra is “When in doubt, throw it out.” In other words, only place material that truly can be recycled in your bin. This message is hard for many environmentalists to hear, but it cuts costs for recyclers and local governments.”
The image above is a poster from the city of Asheville, N. C., used courtesy of The Conversation.