You Are “Wishcycling” and You Need to Stop Right Now

There's saying you try to be eco-friendly in your day-to-day life and then there's actually being eco-friendly in your day-to-day life. Realizing there was a major gap between these two things, journalist Ashlee Piper wrote a no-bullshit guide to going green, GIVE A SH*T: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet ($17, Running Press). One of her biggest frustrations is that we think we're great at recycling, but we're actually doing it all wrong. In an excerpt from the book, which is on shelves June 26, she breaks down what we should be doing:

Contrary to popular belief, a recycle bin is not a wishing well or a lucky Italian fountain in which you toss coins, and your local recycling facility workers are not wizards who magically transform something completely unrecyclable into something that is. Sure, what recycling facilities can do is pretty freaking incredible, but putting any old item in the recyclables bin does not make it so. This practice is called wishcycling, and although I totally encourage you to keep wishin’ and hopin’ in other aspects of your glorious life, recycling simply doesn’t work that way. Here’s how recycling actually works:

Study up on what’s recycled in your system: Most areas will recycle aluminum (beverage cans, cleaned foil, and aluminum cookware), steel and tin cans, corrugated cardboard, magazines, newspapers, office papers, paperboard, paper cardboard beverage cartons, envelopes sans plastic windows (so remove those before tossing the paper in the bin), phonebooks, glass (clear, amber, and emerald), and certain plastics (especially bottles, jars, and jugs). Some municipalities will recycle yard clippings, energy-efficient light bulbs, batteries, and electronics, but check before you put these out, especially as they might have separate pick-up days or requirements.

Know what separation your system demands: My city has singlestream recycling, so I can put my plastics, glass, metal, and paper in the same bin. That’s not always the case, so get the 411 by calling 311.

Get the schedule: Knowing pick-up frequency ensures that your bins aren’t overflowing, which can sometimes lead people to toss recyclables in the trash simply to cut down on clutter.

Check and disassemble: Know the recycling numbers on materials that are accepted in your community and adhere to them. And think of the components of packaging. For instance, a bottle may be plastic #1, while the cap or lid may be #6, which may not be recyclable in your area.

Yikes, These 11 Things Aren't Really Recyclable:

Yikes, These 11 Things Aren't Really Recyclable

Also known as foamed polystyrene or plastic #6, Styrofoam can sit in a landfill for centuries. A few programs exist that can handle recycling this material, but they’re not the norm. The best course of action? Avoid using Styrofoam and foam-coated items like packing peanuts, food containers, and coated cups.

Styrofoam

Also known as foamed polystyrene or plastic #6, Styrofoam can sit in a landfill for centuries. A few programs exist that can handle recycling this material, but they’re not the norm. The best course of action? Avoid using Styrofoam and foam-coated items like packing peanuts, food containers, and coated cups.
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Although your plastic bottle may be recyclable in your area, the cap is often made from very different plastic.

Plastic caps

Although your plastic bottle may be recyclable in your area, the cap is often made from very different plastic.
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These are usually a blend of plastics, so they’re notoriously difficult to recycle. Repurpose or mend whenever possible.

Plastic hangers

These are usually a blend of plastics, so they’re notoriously difficult to recycle. Repurpose or mend whenever possible.
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Mirrors aren’t just glass, homie. They’re full of reflective chemicals, so they cannot enter the traditional glass recycling stream.

Mirrors

Mirrors aren’t just glass, homie. They’re full of reflective chemicals, so they cannot enter the traditional glass recycling stream.
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These are types of glass that have been treated with chemicals to withstand high heat and, thus, cannot mix with traditional glass recycling.

Pyrex and ceramic

These are types of glass that have been treated with chemicals to withstand high heat and, thus, cannot mix with traditional glass recycling.
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Alas, the grease from last night’s pizza and pasta render your paper takeout containers and food boxes unrecyclable. Many composting programs and methods can handle these greasy bits if the paper itself is not mixed with inorganic material.

Food-contaminated containers

Alas, the grease from last night’s pizza and pasta render your paper takeout containers and food boxes unrecyclable. Many composting programs and methods can handle these greasy bits if the paper itself is not mixed with inorganic material.
Photo: Kristina Bratko on Unsplash
Most of these are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the world’s most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, which cannot be broken down again. So it’s here forever as your moldy shower curtain. Cool. (I use a reusable, washable cloth shower liner to avoid this PVC-induced guilt.)

Shower curtains and liners

Most of these are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the world’s most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, which cannot be broken down again. So it’s here forever as your moldy shower curtain. Cool. (I use a reusable, washable cloth shower liner to avoid this PVC-induced guilt.)
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Some mixed-recycling programs can handle newer photo paper, but traditional photo development uses chemicals that can’t enter the recycling stream.

Photo paper

Some mixed-recycling programs can handle newer photo paper, but traditional photo development uses chemicals that can’t enter the recycling stream.
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These bad boys are metal and glass in one and often contain mercury or lead.

Incandescent light bulbs

These bad boys are metal and glass in one and often contain mercury or lead.
Photo: Armando Ascorve Morales on Unsplash
Most of these shopping and storage bags can be recycled, but they require a different system than that of most municipalities. Whenever possible, recycle these at specific drop-offs sometimes found at grocery stores and other retailers.

Plastic and zip-top bags

Most of these shopping and storage bags can be recycled, but they require a different system than that of most municipalities. Whenever possible, recycle these at specific drop-offs sometimes found at grocery stores and other retailers.
Photo: Spiderstock/Getty Images
When melted, tires emit toxic gasses, so they’re not often accepted in municipal recycling. Most tire suppliers will offer recycling options (or will just include it in your bill automatically) when you get them changed.

Tires

When melted, tires emit toxic gasses, so they’re not often accepted in municipal recycling. Most tire suppliers will offer recycling options (or will just include it in your bill automatically) when you get them changed.
Photo: David Edelstein on Unsplash

Get plastic savvy: It’s a bummer, but the number on the bottom of plastics can’t always be trusted. A good rule of thumb is to look at the shape of the container. Generally plastic bottles, jars, and jugs are recyclable.

Clean everything: Just like the sign in your office kitchen says, municipal waste workers are not your mom, and no, they’re not interested in that last bit of salsa in the jar, so wash applicable recyclables before you put them in the bin. This also keeps your home from smelling like a literal Dumpster.

Be courteous: Real people often sort through our recyclables. Sharp objects like broken glass shards and razor blades can make someone’s day horrible and scary, so don’t be a dick: find another way to properly recycle those, like taking them to a specific drop-off for scrap glass or metal.

Seek out alternatives: For the items that your community recycling system doesn’t support, explore other options. This may mean you stockpile certain recyclables (such as corks, certain plastics, and other items your municipality doesn’t collect curbside) and take or mail them to a designated facility. Most hazardous materials, like batteries, paint, and motor oil, have special disposal requirements you can look up online. Harder-to-off-load items, like mattresses, don’t need to be put out with the trash—peep my Ethical Off-load chart at ashleepiper.com/ethicaloffload for solid guidance on how to responsibly and consciously off-load anything.

Organize your home-based recycling center by end point: You’ll need designated bins for your municipal recycling needs and also smaller repositories for items that get recycled or donated elsewhere. I keep small jars for collecting corks (which I donate to the animal shelter), batteries (which I recycle at a receptacle at my office), and those pesky silica packets (which I keep in case I drop my phone in water or need to dry out and defunk sweaty running shoes). Having these repositories all in one place doesn’t have to be unsightly or complicated, and it ensures you are ready to recycle like a pro.

Don’t forget the other rooms of the house: You only need one recycling area in your home, but don’t forget to recycle nonkitchen items. Toiletry packaging, office papers and mail, toilet paper rolls, and other items can be easily recycled and sometimes composted.

Reprinted with permission from GIVE A SHT © 2018 by Ashlee Piper, Running Press.*

Related: 29 Tiny Changes That Will Make Your Home More Eco-Friendly Today

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