Wishcycling: How It’s Causing Australia’s Contaminated Recycling Problem  

If you’ve ever put something into the recycling bin hoping it will be recycled, your ‘wishcycling’ may just be sabotaging the entire bin (or truckload). You might not think it’s a big deal, but do you know how much contaminated recycling affects the recycling industry in Australia? 

Wishcycling is the term for putting non-recyclable rubbish in a recycling bin, hoping that it will end up being recycled. Wishcycling is causing Australia’s contaminated recycling problem due to incorrectly designated wastes, non-recyclable wastes and contaminated recyclable materials ruining otherwise recyclable materials. 

Things such as plastic bags, pizza boxes, coffee cups, hard plastic cases made from previously recycled materials and other typically recyclable materials are commonly put into recycling bins in Australia. However, all of these items can be considered recycling contamination.

In order to up your recycling game, we’re going to take you through what contaminated recycling is, what wishcycling is, the impact these two things have on the environment and what you can do as a consumer to avoid it.

What is Recycling Contamination?  

Recycling contamination is the consequence of incorrectly sorting recyclable materials that impact the entire recycling facility. Objects that are ineligible for recycling often end up in the recycling bin due to an assumption that it can be recycled or sometimes, laziness. However, this can create major problems for recycling facilities. 

Australia’s contaminated recycling problem is stemming from a phenomenon called ‘wishcycling’ or ‘aspirational recycling’, where people put items in the recycle bin for curbside pick up to (hopefully) be recycled, even though it might not be recyclable. 

What Are Some Examples of Contaminated Recycling?

Some examples of contaminated recycling include but are not limited to: 

  • Soft plastic
  • pizza boxes
  • food and drink
  • Textiles
  • Nappies
  • E-waste
  • broken glass
  • non-recyclable packaging
  • coloured craft paper 
  • cardstock

Contaminated recycling means the material that cannot be sold in secondary markets, remade into other materials. In the case of e-waste, broken technology, and window panes, you’ll need to require special recycling services to dispose of these items. 

What Are the Causes of Recycling Contamination?

The leading causes of recycling contamination are: 

Wishcycling – Sometimes, our intentions get the best of us, and we toss away a plastic bowl with leftover food or a styrofoam box in hopes that it can be recycled down the line. 

However, these items can cause major problems for recycling facilities and additionally, can contaminate other materials in the bin, making them ineligible for recycling as well. 

There is ‘etiquette’ to adding to a recycling bin, such as cleaning food debris from the material you wish to recycle, and checking the label on the product you wish to recycle to see if it can be recycled.

Lack of education on recyclable materials – Many of us generally recognise plastic as a recyclable material, and glass and aluminium cans too. But often as consumers, we forget to check the labels on our products and go off of our assumptions instead. 

Soft plastics cannot be recycled as they wrap around sorting materials and disrupt sorting in facilities, and some contain chemicals that render other recycling unsafe. 

Scrap metal often ends up in kerbside recycling bins, which causes danger to personnel and often ensures that it ends up in the landfill. 

Many items such as e-waste and appliances can be recycled when disposed of through skip bin hire or other rubbish removal methods, but can’t be placed in a municipal recycling bin. 

Plastic containers will have a RIC (Resin Identification Code) on them with different numbers. Generally speaking, plastics assigned with a 1 or 2 are compatible with kerbside recycling, where objects with 3, 6, or 7 are designated as trash. 

What Are the Consequences of Wishcycling & Contaminated Recycling? 

Materials that were incorrectly placed in recycling bins for curbside pickup risk contaminating other materials, workplace accidents, loss of recyclable yield per facility and overall increases in landfilled waste. 

Of the 4.4 million tonnes of packaging waste produced in 2017-2018, approximately 44% ended up in landfill. Recycling contamination helps contribute to this statistic by ruining otherwise recyclable materials. 

Makes Other Recyclable Waste Non-recyclable 

Some materials that we assume to be recyclable can actually leach chemicals into the rest of the recycling which can prevent them from being recycled and reused. For example, pizza boxes have grease and other substances that can soil paper and cardboard.

Things such as coloured paper, previously believed to be recyclable because of its designation as paper often loses its colour during the sorting process, leaking it on other recyclable objects and ruining their viability for secondhand sale, repurposing or consumption. 

Objects such as light bulbs, Pyrex dishes and other glassware have different melting points and chemical treatments, ruining the recyclable glass that may be in the same parcel with them; additionally, depending on the treatment of glass containers, several types of glass dishes are not decomposable and will sit in a landfill.

Causes Countries to Reject Exported Recyclables

Contaminated recycling and wishcycling increase the likelihood of countries that receive waste as export to reject further shipments. A prime example of this happening is China’s change in policy to only accept shipments of highly sorted, verifiably recyclable material at 99.5% uncontaminated waste to be processed. 

When China announced its stringent import restrictions, Australia exported around 1.3 million tonnes of recyclable material to China; that’s 4% of Australia’s overall recyclable waste and around 30-40% of recyclable plastics and paper and cardboard. Paper and cardboard, plastics, packaging glass and metals create about 25% of Australia’s recycling streams.

As China and other nations have created extremely strict standards for contamination, more waste has needed to be processed within Australia, causing unprecedented demand within the country. This has been a key factor in the rising cost of waste disposal in Australia.

Operational Challenges & Damage to Sorting Facilities 

Contaminated recycling slows down the process and can even put workers in danger. Items like plastic bags wrap around the machines and require workers to dislodge them. 

Not only does this slow down the recycling process, adding to operating costs, it also puts facility staff at risk. Objects such as Christmas lights and Ziploc bags can tangle around machinery, requiring workers to halt processing, climb into the machines and manually remove the material. 

Trying to unravel or dislodge plastic from a recycling machine requires staff to risk injury from a machine that may suddenly start working again, or malfunction due to being stopped suddenly while in operation. 

Sorting equipment in some recycling plants separates ‘flats’ from ‘rounds’; if you flatten a pizza box, it may be mistakenly sorted as paper, contaminating the otherwise good paper that came in that lot. 

How to Reduce Wishcycling & Contaminated Recycling 

There are several schools of thought around how to reduce wishcycling and contaminated recycling. Some solutions to wishcycling include increased education surrounding recyclable materials and the consequences of wishcycling and community-wide events for recycling education. Others focus on infrastructure bolstering, upgrading sorting facilities and even creation of a national waste database, among other infrastructure changes. 

Education on Recycling

Education campaigns centred around accessible resources for consumers is a good way to reduce wishcycling and contaminated recycling. Utilising social media is a good way to spread campaigns surrounding recycling practices and raise awareness. 

Using web- and app-based modes of communication guarantees engagement from consumers and makes it accessible, constantly reminding people to recycle correctly. 

More Accessible Recycling Facilities 

About 95% of Australian households have access to a curbside collection program and 91% have access to curbside recycling circuits. Though these facilities are positioned to be convenient for the surrounding populations, some services close to major cities are not currently able to process certain types of recyclable materials. 

In fact, only 51% of LGAs have a curbside collection service that accepts all seven types of plastic, and only 10 Local Government Areas accept all types of plastic and plastic bags. 

Providers like Redcycle are leading the way in normalising other recycling channels, such as soft plastic collection at local shopping centres. This helps keep plastic bags and other damaging materials out of regular household recycling bins. 

Containers for Change is another program encouraging correct recycling, with only genuinely recyclable items able to be submitted. 

Is Commingled Recycling Helpful or Harmful? 

Commingled recycling is also known as single-stream or mixed recycling, where several different types of recyclable material are loaded into a single truck and sorted at facilities. Commingled recycling helps make recycling easier for consumers, but increases the chances of contaminated recycling in the long run. 

What Is Commingled Recycling?

Commingled recycling is having a single bin for recyclable materials to be thrown into. The recyclable rubbish is then taken to a sorting facility to be sorted into different groups of rubbish. With only one bin, it improves the rate of rubbish being recycled correctly, reducing rubbish being sent to landfills. 

In Australia, municipal and public recycling bins are typically commingled, allowing people to throw away recyclable paper, plastic and metal in the same bin. Some countries still require paper, plastic and metal to be sorted separately for recycling. However, commingled recycling aims to make recycling simple and easy. 

The idea behind commingled recycling is that the increase in accessibility will produce a higher yield of recyclable and repurposed materials and decrease the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill due to contamination. 

What Happens to Commingled Recycling?

Commingled recycling gets sorted either by automatic or manual means at recycling facilities. The mixing of materials, however, poses a risk to workers and machinery during the sorting and processing processes and may lead to contamination of the entire truckload. 

Ideally, the truck driver will identify any contaminating materials and separate them immediately upon arriving at the facility to ensure that bales of recyclable material are not contaminated. The materials collected will be brought to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for processing.

How Can You Do Your Part? 

Minimising recycling contamination requires consumer education, attention and accessibility. Wishcycling is a side effect of well-meaning consumers, but proper recycling practices can help reduce this issue. 

Wishful thinking isn’t enough – putting non-recyclable items in your recycling bin only leads to trouble further down the track. Many items that aren’t recyclable in standard council collection can actually be recycled if disposed of in a skip bin. 

Construction waste, green waste, glass, appliances and e-waste can all be disposed of with skip bin hire. Learn more about how much skip bin waste is recycled or contact Jim’s Skip Bins for more information. 

If you are wondering what happens to your waste after hiring a skip from Jim’s, check out our Skip Tips. You can also learn about what types of rubbish you can and can’t put in your skip here. At Jim’s, we strive to make the hiring process easy so we offer a skip bin type guide and are always here to help! Get in touch with our friendly team today!