top of page
  • Writer's pictureDiana Dudenhoeffer

We can't wish-cycle our way to sustainability

Photo by Ron Lach on Unsplash

I want to start this article with a story about my old roommate.

The first few weeks of living on campus my freshman year of college meant juggling classes, making new friends, and scariest of all, navigating a 200-square-foot cinderblock cube with another 19-year-old. As you can imagine, sharing such a tiny dorm with another person came with a unique set of challenges.

During furniture layout deliberations on move-in day, Roomie and I decided the minifridge and recycling bin should be in the middle of the room since they were shared commodities—and it was then that she confided in me that she didn’t know how to recycle.

Forever the people-pleaser, I jumped at the opportunity be helpful. “I’m happy to sort for the both of us, so do your best and I’ll fill in the gaps,” I told her.

I didn’t want Roomie’s lack of recycling know-how to bar her from recycling, especially since the trash room was just two doors down from our dorm room. But as the semester went on, it became clear to me that she had a bad case of wish-cycling.

Wish-cycling describes an individual’s well-intentioned but misplaced recycling efforts. People like my roommate are unsure about whether something is recyclable—so they end up tossing everything in the recycling bin with fingers crossed it’ll be recovered.

Each trip to the trash room, I found non-recyclables aplenty in our bin. From granola bar wrappers to partially filled single-use water bottles, my roommate was definitely guilty of wish-cycling.

This kind of aspirational recycling is damaging to the recycling industry because it contaminates other materials that would otherwise be recycled. Contamination is a non-recyclable item—or the wrong recyclable item—that ends up in the system. A banana peel tossed in with recyclables or tin tossed in with plastics are examples of recycling contamination. You can read more about contamination in our glass recycling blogpost.

I love the way Madeline Somerville at Earth911 puts it in her article about wish-cycling: “While you think you’re helping out by tossing anything and everything that could possibly, maybe, sort of be recycled into your blue bin, you may actually be dooming literal tons of other, properly recycled, items to the trash.”

It’s easy to understand why wish-cycling happens. Most people want to do the right thing, and there’s never any malice in wish-cycling. After all, it’s much more pleasant to believe that something good will happen to the things we throw in recycling bins. Wish-cyclers decide to believe that their trash will become something new instead of ending up in the landfill with other perfectly good recyclables.

So how can we become better recyclers? Commitment plays a big role.

You may have heard the mantra “decide, don’t slide.” This commitment philosophy is common in relationship classes or couple’s therapy, and it means that people are liable to slide into circumstances they never meant to end up in if they are not intentional with their aspirations and plans for the future.

I probably don’t need to go to couple’s therapy with my old roommate, but the crux of the philosophy is clear. Roomie slid into wish-cycling because she couldn’t make informed decisions about what to recycle.

The solution for her would be education. If she had read up on proper recycling techniques (and if I hadn’t enabled her wish-cycling by sorting for her), she’d be able to avoid the slide.

Consumers aren’t the only ones guilty of sliding, and the commitment to robust recycling efforts requires collaboration between all sorts of stakeholders. Citizens need to be willing to put in the extra effort to sort recycling properly. Municipalities need to commit to funding recycling drop-off locations and/or pick-up services. And producers should be pressured to use minimal packaging, make products that are easy to recycle, and otherwise plan for end-of-life early in the manufacturing process.

Don’t feel discouraged if you’ve been guilty of wish-cycling. Nobody’s perfect, and recycling confusion is bound to happen when curbside haulers and drop-off locations regularly change rules about accepted materials. Our best advice is this: If you’re not sure if something’s recyclable, ask.

Paper recycling bins at the Franklin Avenue Recycling Center in Springfield display signs to help residents understand what is and isn't accepted.

Photo by Diana Dudenhoeffer

  • Use the City of Springfield’s Waste Wizard searchable database for disposal questions.

  • Scroll through the Recycling and Donation Locations PDF on the City’s website.

  • Consult the signs at drop-off recycling centers before you toss something in the bins.

  • Print out a list of items that confuse you. Hang it on your fridge or tape it near your recycling bin for easy access.

  • When in doubt, throw it out.


About the Author

Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.


bottom of page