I've been there. I'm holding some packaging that kind of looks like it ought to be recyclable but isn't one of the standard products that are asked for. I could put it in the bin and then it'll head straight to landfill, or I could put it in the recycling and then it has a chance of being recycled, right? So it often seems better to recycle it in the hope that it might be recovered rather than consign it to certain landfill. This is known as wishcycling.
Sadly, from all that I've read about wishcycling it's not the best approach. When we put in non-recyclables into a recycling bin it contaminates the high quality recyclable materials and several things can happen:
- A lot of dry recycling is still manually sorted in Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs). When the quality of the input goes down it can require more people to sort it. It's not a pretty job if it also contains items that are contaminated with food waste
- Non-recyclable items that processing machines aren't designed for can damage them and mean costly maintenance
- Items like batteries that make it into regular recycling can start fires in paper bales which is dangerous and expensive
- Non-recyclables mixed in can mean a lower quality end product to use to turn into new products. This can reduce what it can be used for and make it harder to sell
- Paying more pickers and sorters and servicing machines costs money, and selling lower quality products brings less in, both of which reduce the profitability and potential viability of recycling operations
So the advice I have learned to take on board is:
- Check what you can recycle locally
- If in doubt, keep it out
Counterintuitively, if we want to recycle more, it seems at the moment we have to recycle less.
And even better is to reduce and reuse where possible in the first place.