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April 24, 2018

The Dangers of “Wishcycling”

By Susan Robinson, Director of Public Affairs for Waste Management

As the impacts of China’s new import policies to reduce trash in the recyclables begin to impact our collection programs, you may be seeing a lot more articles about the health of recycling, both locally and across the globe. In many cases, these articles are communicating the same basic information:

  • Recycling contamination – or the percentage of trash mixed with recyclables – has increased and it’s jeopardizing the global recycling industry
  • Going forward, China will not purchase recyclables if there is just a fraction of trash mixed with the items
  • As a result, we all must focus our efforts on recycling the right items the right way

Collection is not the same as recycling

Simply put, we must reduce the amount of contamination in the recycling stream, and this can only happen if the materials we collect are the right materials. Note the use of the word “collect” above. It’s important to highlight “collection,” since the quality of the material we collect directly impacts the quality of what can ultimately be sold and recycled.

To that end, the following quote is from a recent article by Nina Butler of More Recycling, who describes the need to focus on collection:

“Many recycling entities…are facing severe financial challenges right now despite the environmental benefits that come when recovered materials are used to make new products.

In short, the market for recycled materials is broken. We have equated collection with recycling when in reality that is just the first of many steps to ensure complete reabsorption of resources.”

Nina Butler, More Recycling, Plastics Recycling Update, February 2018

Ms. Butler drives to the heart of one of the key challenges we are up against as we struggle to reduce contamination in recycling programs.  Messaging has historically emphasized the importance of placing recyclables in recycling carts. As a result, consumers now equate the placement of materials in their recycling cart with recycling.  From there, it is out-of-sight-out-of-mind and it is up to recyclers to ensure that discarded materials are recycled into new products.

This poses a difficult education challenge, since it’s hard to teach consumers that their materials are only recycled when they replace virgin materials – not when they’re collected. It’s only when this substitution happens that we realize the environmental and economic benefits of recycling. And, in fact, placing non-recyclable materials into the cart leads to additional economic and environmental costs, with no benefits and (ironically) less recycling. We call this wishful recycling “wishcycling” and it is lethal to our nation’s recycling programs.

Why it’s important to only recycle the right items

So, why is wishcycling such a problem? There are multiple reasons, but what it all boils down to is that nonrecyclables in the recycling carts ultimately get sorted out at the recycling facility and disposed of as trash. In other words, “wishcycling” does no one any favors, except adding costs and reducing the amount of items that can ultimately be recycled.

For example, the average contamination rate for materials that we collect in curbside recycling programs has grown to about 25%.  That means that 500 pounds of every 2,000 pounds that we collect at the curb is ultimately discarded as non-recyclable. This increases the cost of recycling by increasing the cost of sorting materials, transporting and disposing of trash, and also includes the lost value of good recyclables that are ruined due to contamination.

At a global level, years of wishcycling across the world have contributed to end markets like China to get more strict on what they’ll ultimately purchase and recycle into new materials.

Toward the end of last year, China began instituting a new contamination limit that requires processors like Waste Management to shrink that 500 pounds of contamination to 10 pounds (0.5%). That’s like shrinking something the size of a grizzly bear down to a puppy. And with these new guidelines comes even higher processing costs, while at the same time commodity prices are at long-time lows. Mix all this together and the economics of recycling are certainly under pressure. 

It’s time to right the ship

Focusing on recycling the right things correctly has never been more important.  At Waste Management, we are focusing on quality, increasing demand, and reducing the economic and environmental impact of the materials we manage for our customers.

However, for recycling to be successful and sustainable for years to come, we must all commit to recycling only the right things the right way. 

Collecting materials is not the same as recycling them. It’s only when a material is recycled into something else that we realize the economic and environmental benefits. Anything short of this, and we’re simply creating a problem that results in a negative environmental impact.

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