“Greenwish” is a term that has entered the vernacular to describe the hope that sustainability efforts are making a difference, even when they are not.
After spending the last year taking recycled goods to a local plant for processing as part of my school’s service group, I can report another sustainability-related phenomenon that needs to be addressed: BinWishing. Some bloggers have dubbed it “wishcycling.”
This is the unrealistic expectation that just because we put something in the recycling bin, that it can and will be recycled. While ambitious users of the blue recycling bin might think it’s worth a chance that something can be recycled, so why not just throw it in the blue bin, the reality is quite different.
Including non-recyclables in recycling that will be processed at the plant creates a range of difficult problems. According to Valley Waste Service in Beaver Falls, Penn., four things occur when BinWishing takes place:
- Decreased Efficiency:
- Recycling plants often use equipment to sort glass from plastic from cardboard from paper.
- When items cannot be recognized by the machine, the process slows down. Plant employees are often tasked with fishing non-recyclables out of the stream of items, and the more they have to remove from the process, the more risk there is to them (e.g., broken glass) and the slower the process.
- Equipment Damage:
- When large items such as sports equipment, mirrors, hoses, etc. find their way into the stream of goods to be recycled, equipment can be damaged and the burden of removing the items falls to plant workers.
- Often small pieces of glass get or commonly recycled incorrectly goods like plastic bags make their way into equipment gears, causing damage and delays.
- When food containers are not cleaned — or items like extremely greasy pizza boxes are recycled — contamination of an entire lot of recyclables can occur. (But DO clear the cardboard box of grease and then recycle it!)
- Negative Impact on the Environment:
- Decreased Efficiency:
- When Binwishing occurs, the recycling plant has to transport garbage items to the dump, which is often in a different location.
- In addition, when recycled goods are moved to the next step of the cycle, any sign of contamination with Binwished items, could cause rejection by the purchaser of the goods, making the entire recycling process futile (and resulting in the entire group of items getting trashed in a landfill).
Clearly, better education on what can and cannot be recycled is in order. Below are a few tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself standing in front of the trash and recycling bins, according to Recycle Nation and Green Blue.
Do NOT recycle these items, please:
- Disposable coffee cups
They contain a liner that most recycling plants cannot process. That said, the plastic lids usually CAN be recycled.
- Greasy take-out containers
Most take-out containers CAN be recycled, but only if they are clear of food debris and grease. A quick rinse should do the trick.
- Plastic straws and bottle caps
While straws and bottle caps are usually made of recyclable plastic, machines have trouble processing such small items. As a result, they are usually removed from the process and sent to a landfill.
- Plastic bags and plastic wraps
Plastic bags are difficult to process and often clog up recycling machines. As a result, they are not accepted by most curbside recycling programs. If you are eager to recycle your plastic bags, look for special programs in your area such as collections at the grocery store. Or, alternatively, stop using them.
Anything that can get wrapped around the machine (e.g., hoses, chains,
Christmas lights, string etc.) can create delays and should not be recycled.
- Hazardous materials
Items such as paint, oil, and medical waste can be disposed of through special programs in your city or town. Do not include them in recycling, even if the container is empty. If a hazardous material container is empty, trash it in the garbage.
- Batteries and light bulbs
Batteries and light bulbs are hazardous even in the trash and can create a fire risk. Collect them at home and dispose of them through e-waste and other special local programs.
Dirty diapers? Duh! But clean diapers are also not recyclable because of the mix of
materials woven throughout them.
Hopefully all of us know this by now, but televisions, phones, hair dryers, and really every electronic item should be recycled through local e-waste collection programs.
- Chip, candy and fruit wrappings
If you can crinkle the wrapping in your fist, it’s probably made of multiple layers of materials and it cannot be recycled.
Unfortunately, textiles are not usually recycled through curbside recycling programs. Look for special textile recycling initiatives, such as the one run by H&M (5) or donate used clothes to places like Goodwill. Clothes in good shape can also be sold through thrift stores.
Though the material they are made of might be recyclable, the shape of hangers makes them difficult to work with. Trash them (or take them to a local dry cleaner for reuse).
Take to Goodwill or put in the trash – ceramics are unfortunately not recyclable.
Wood is not recyclable but it might be compostable. Check with your local program.
- Window panes and drinking glasses (or broken glass)
Though glass containers are recyclable, the glass that is used to make window panes and drinking glasses is treated differently to have a higher melting point and cannot be recycled. Broken glass creates a hazard for recycling plant workers.
- Shiny wrapping paper
Communities often hold special events to collect used tires. Alternatively, a tire retailer might recycle them for you.
- Paper towels
Unfortunately, even dry and unused paper towels cannot be recycled because of the way they are processed. If you are suspicious of this idea, as I was, please read more detail on this issue here.
Interestingly — and this was news to my family — recycled goods should not be thrown out in a plastic bag. If they are, the goods are often immediately diverted to the landfill. Throw out goods individually so that sorting at the recycling plants goes seamlessly.
Despite the above list, there are obviously thousands of goods that can and should be recycled including:
- Metal: aluminum or tin cans, aluminum foil
- Paper: Newspapers, magazines, junk mail (even envelopes with clear plastic pieces attached), Cardboard boxes (preferably flattened), Books (Consider donating; alternatively, paperbacks can be recycled and hard covered books can be recycled after the hard cover is removed), Cereal boxes, White and colored paper
- Glass: Food jars and bottles
- Plastic: Water and other liquid containers, detergent containers
Though consuming fewer waste products and reusing materials are the best ways to reduce garbage, recycling is a part of our lives and is here to stay.
Let’s all get educated and take small steps to make our local recycling plants’ jobs easier. Don’t be a “binwisher” — know what can and cannot be recycled. Would-be binwishers would be well advised to keep this in mind when pondering which bin to toss their item: When in doubt, throw it out!