Wishcycling: Background information when reading Wasteland

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The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future

by Oliver Franklin-Wallis

Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis X
Wasteland by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
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    Jul 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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This article relates to Wasteland

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Let's say you have an empty shampoo bottle or yogurt container. Should it go in your recycling bin or the trash? Chances are you'll check for the familiar three-arrow recycling symbol before deciding. But as Oliver Franklin-Wallis explains in Wasteland, the symbol we've all come to equate with recyclability simply means that an item theoretically can be recycled, not that it will be recycled in practice.

Adding to the confusion in the United States is that there is no federal recycling system in place to set uniform standards nationwide. Instead, recycling facilities and the items they accept vary widely across the country. "Recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities in the U.S., all of which make their own choices about whether and what to recycle," says sustainability expert Stephanie Kersten-Johnston. No wonder a 2019 survey found that a large majority of Americans think recycling is more confusing than notoriously confounding tasks like filing taxes or assembling Ikea furniture.

A result of that confusion is that many recyclable items end up tossed in the trash instead of being recycled. Other times, as Franklin-Wallis says, people end up making the opposite mistake—putting things in their recycling bin that they think or hope will be recycled but that are not. Indeed, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a full quarter of what Americans put in their recycling bins doesn't belong there. Known as wishcycling or aspirational recycling, this behavior typically arises from the desire to be environmentally conscious. But although the intentions behind wishcycling may be good, the consequences are not.

Recycling combine in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NYCPutting non-recyclable items in your recycling bin contaminates the recycling stream, making it more labor-intensive and expensive for facilities to sort the materials for processing. In addition, materials that a facility is not designed to accept can sometimes cause expensive damage to the equipment. For example, plastic bags can get caught in sorting machinery and cause serious malfunctions. Unable to keep up with the cost, some cities are forced to shut their recycling facilities down or severely restrict the material they collect.

More fundamentally, wishcycling undermines the recycling process, making it less likely that genuinely recyclable items will in fact be recycled. Because sorting out the waste can be so difficult, contamination can result in the entire batch being rejected, not just the non-recyclable items. As a result, materials that normally would be recycled get sent to the landfill or incinerator instead. According to Joe Pickard of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, it is common for recycling facilities to have up to 20 percent contamination rates. That translates into a lot of unnecessarily wasted recyclables that otherwise would have been kept out of landfills.

Wishcycling is an especially big problem when it comes to plastic. That's because of the highly misleading labeling system used for different types of plastic materials: a three-arrow recycling logo surrounding a number from 1 to 7, with each number indicating a specific type of plastic resin. The presence of the recycling symbol misleads consumers to assume that all items stamped with it are recyclable. In reality, however, the only types of plastic that are recycled with any frequency are plastics labeled "1" (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, commonly used for beverage bottles and food containers) and "2" (high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, often used for things like milk containers and shampoo bottles). And even those plastics are recycled at dismally low rates.

According to a 2022 Greenpeace report, the overall recycling rate for plastics in the United States was a mere 5 to 6 percent in 2021. Worldwide, it is not much better at an estimated 9 percent—even as global plastic production surges to record levels. As Franklin-Wallis explains in Wasteland, these low recycling rates have to do with inherent problems with plastic that make widescale recycling unviable, problems the plastic industry knew about from the beginning, even as they sold the myth of recycling to forestall public opposition. "If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Franklin-Wallis quotes a former top executive of the plastic industry admitting. (For more on why plastic is so hard to recycle, see The Failures of Plastic Recycling.)

However, inherently difficult-to-recycle materials like plastic are not the only items that may be rejected by recycling facilities. For example, although glass is highly recyclable, many municipalities in the United States no longer accept it in curbside recycling programs. This results from a combination of factors, including lack of end markets to sell to, high transportation costs due to weight and high levels of contamination from broken shards.

So before assuming an item can go in your recycling bin, carefully check your municipality's recycling guidelines to see what materials are explicitly accepted for recycling at your local facility. (Since food residue also contaminates recycling, while you're at it make sure that the items you place in your collection bin are clean.) It may seem counterintuitive, but given the negative consequence of wishcycling, you shouldn't err on the side of recycling. If you're unsure about an item's recyclability, instead of dropping it in your recycling bin and hoping for the best, follow the slogan coined by waste management experts: "When in doubt, throw it out."

It's depressing to realize how much of our stuff ends up in the landfill despite our best intentions. However, engaging in wishful thinking about recycling doesn't solve any problems. Instead, focus your efforts on lobbying for an end to single-use plastics and reducing your own waste by consuming less and choosing sustainable alternatives. But as Franklin-Wallis warns in Wasteland, beware of corporate greenwashing attempts to co-opt the language of sustainability. Just as corporations use empty recycling pledges to sell more products, "so too the new zero-waste movement is in danger of being co-opted as it becomes less a policy goal than a branding exercise," he cautions.

Recycling combine in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NYC, courtesy of CaptJayRuffins

Filed under Nature and the Environment

This article relates to Wasteland. It first ran in the September 6, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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