What is wishcycling?
In an era of increased consumer awareness, we want to do what’s best for the planet. We recognize that it is our responsibility to take care of our waste products, and try our best to reduce, reuse, and recycle. “Wishcycling,” or wishful recycling, describes when consumers, not knowing what to do with a waste product, sort something that is not actually recyclable into a recycling bin—hoping that it will somehow be recycled. We often hope that with the mechanical and manual sorting trash goes through, anything non-recyclable will be filtered out—but in reality, this does not happen and instead wishcycling causes problems that waste time and money, and actually create more trash that will just end up in landfills.
Some frequent culprits of wishcycling are pizza boxes covered in food remnants or grease, plastic bags, and single-use cups that are lined with non-recyclable material.
Why is it so bad?
When non-recyclable waste is mixed in with a load of recycling, the entire shipment is contaminated and all the material that would otherwise have been recyclable is sent to landfills because it can no longer be processed or sold. This means more trash is created, defeating the goal the wishcycler had in mind and contributing even more to pollution. Also, machinery at an MRF (materials recovery/recycling facility) are not suited to handle these non-recyclable materials, and the waste causes stress on the system—machines get jammed or break, and time and resources are wasted on getting them back in order.
Until recently, the bulk of the world’s recycled materials—no matter how contaminated—were sold to China for processing. But in early 2018, China’s frustration with the massive amounts of unusable waste led to the passing of the National Sword Policy, which completely bans many types of recyclables from being imported into the country, as well as sets much tougher standards for the rest. This left much of the world stuck with their trash, and much of it has been sent to landfills instead. Until the passage of this new policy, South Korea exported most of its waste to China. After the ban, South Korea has been sending waste to countries in Southeast Asia—but not without issue. In early 2019, the Philippines sent back a ship filled with material that a Korean recycling company had claimed were recyclable plastics, but turned out to be contaminated with household trash.
Especially now that the world’s largest sink for waste products has closed its ports, countries need to find ways to cope with the trash produced by their industries and people. In their responses to this situation, countries should look at reducing the waste they produce, as well as improving the recycling capabilities they have within their own borders.
So what can we do about it?
In Yonsei International Campus’ dormitory, where all students spend their first year, the recycling areas are notoriously messy. Despite the signs above each trash can depicting what kind of trash goes in which bin (food waste, plastics, paper, and regular waste), a glance in any of the bins makes it very clear that students do not recycle well. Among the most common recycling errors seen in the dormitory trash cans are: throwing food waste away into the regular waste trash can where it becomes smelly and dirty, throwing away trash bagged in a plastic bag that must then be cut open and resorted by staff, or just outright disregard for the signage. Nonetheless, in an interview with the cleaning staff of Songdo dormitory 2, workers expressed that they see each new batch of students get better at recycling throughout their year in the dormitories, and that they create good habits by the end of their time there. When asked if there was anything they would change about the way recycling was done or enforced, the staff explained that “even if the students just empty out the liquids from bottles and close container lids tightly before they throw them away, it would be a huge help.”
Reducing the sheer amount of waste we produce is the best way to address the problem at its roots. Bring reusable grocery bags with you when you go shopping to avoid single-use plastic bags, and carry your own tumbler so you don’t buy plastic water bottles, single-use take out cups, or plastic straws. With the trash that we still produce nonetheless, there are a few steps we should take in order to dispose of it properly: first, familiarize yourself with the recycling rules in your area. This information is often available at the management office of apartment complexes, or otherwise can be found on your district’s website. Before sorting your trash, make sure to always thoroughly rinse any food waste out of food containers, and to remove stickers, tape, or labels that are of a different material. Finally, err on the safe side and sort anything you are not entirely sure is recyclable as landfill waste.
Interview translation was done with the help of Jaiyeon An, Sustainable Development and Cooperation student, entering class of 2018.