26 Jan 2022

Recycling is great, and it is easy to do. But did you know that you might be doing more harm than good with your recycling if you are doing it wrong? Recycling is not as simple as just throwing everything into your recycling bin and hoping for the best, and something known as “wishcycling” can very easily contaminate entire loads of recycling, leading them to be thrown straight into landfills. But what is wishcycling, and how can you avoid it? Let’s take a look at the basics.

What is Wishcycling?

Wishcycling is a term used to refer to overly optimistic recycling. When you look at an object that may or may not be recyclable and decide that you hope it is recyclable and then throw it in the recycling, you are wishcycling. This is a very common mistake, and one done with the best of intentions and no malice at all. 

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However, even a tiny bit of recycling contamination can ruin an entire load, making it end up at a landfill instead of being recycled. Unfortunately, estimates show that around 25% of all recycled materials are not actually recyclable. This is a major problem, and you should do what you can to minimize the risk of contamination.

Top Recycling Contaminants

There are several particularly common materials that people assume to be recyclable but are, in fact, non-recyclable. You may already be aware that you cannot recycle some of these, but others might be a surprise to you. Here are a few of the most common materials that are mistakenly mixed in with recycling, contaminating entire streams of recycling.

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are the single most common contaminant in recycling streams. You might think that they can be recycled – after all, isn’t plastic recyclable? Well, not all plastic. In general, soft and flexible plastics like the sort used for plastic bags cannot be recycled.

This is because soft materials like loose plastic bags can choke up machinery. The bags wrap around the sorting equipment, clogging up the machines and causing the facilities to shut down so that workers can clear the machines and remove the offending bag. This causes a major problem, with many facilities having to shut down like this several times per day.

Non-Recyclable Plastics

Some types of plastic are easy to recycle, but others are harder or even impossible. All plastics are marked with something called a resin identification code, or RIC. This takes the form of a number next to the recycling symbol. Plastics numbered 1 or 2 can easily be recycled at home, but other numbers are harder to recycle. This varies from city to city, but in most cases, you will struggle to recycle these at home.

Shredded or Colored Paper

While full pages of plain white paper are easy to recycle, other types of paper are more complicated. Shredded paper is too small to sort and just makes a mess all over the floor of the sorting facility. Colored paper is also a problem because it leaks color. Just like washing colored clothes with your whites, colored paper can bleed color all over other recyclables, making them harder to repurpose.

Food Cartons

Takeout boxes are much harder to recycle than you might expect. Sure, they are made of plastic or cardboard, but the problem is the food that they contain. Leftover food and grease can completely contaminate recycling with ease, so you need to make sure that even the smallest traces of these are removed. Greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled at all, for example!

Scrap metal

Aluminum foil might be recyclable, but many other metals are not. Scrap metal like brass, steel, or copper looks like it should be recyclable, but these materials are so hard that they can cause serious damage to machinery in recycling plants. They can be reused, however; take scrap metal to a local scrap yard rather than chucking it into a landfill, and you may well be able to get some cash for it.

Non-Recyclable Glass and Ceramics

Glass jars are recyclable, but broken glass such as broken windows and mirrors is impossible to recycle. Certain other types of glass are also non-recyclable, such as pyrex, glass lightbulbs, and drinking glasses. These have different melting points from other types of glass and can cause problems for recycling plants.

Glass Bottles with Lids

Glass bottles are recyclable, and lids are recyclable, but they are only recyclable separately. If you leave the lid on the bottle, then the metal will end up thrown into the glass recycling, contaminating it. If you recycle the lid separately, though, they can make it into their own recycling streams, keeping them safe and easy to dispose of.

Hazardous Waste

This one might seem more obvious than the others. Disposing of hazardous waste such as syringes needs to be done carefully, even if they are glass or plastic-based. Never recycle anything like a syringe or a sanitary product!

Flattened Containers

The machinery in a recycling plant will automatically sort out different types of recyclables into their own streams. Sometimes, this is done by shape. When the materials reach the facility, the machines will separate out flat sheets from chunky objects and send them into separate streams. If you flatten your cartons, the machines will identify them as flat paper and send them the wrong way!


Wishcycling is an easy mistake to make, but with the guide above, you can start to try to avoid wishcycling when you throw out your recycling. And remember, if you are at all in doubt about whether something is recyclable, it is safer to err on the side of caution and just throw it out into landfill!