Recycling Contamination, ‘’Wishcycling’’ and How to Increase Capture of Clean Recyclables
According to a 2021 survey, while 95% of Americans say they consistently engage in recycling, fewer than half know the basics. Recycling contamination is a significant hindrance amongst the recycling landscape, with “wishcycling”, when incorrect items are disposed of in recycling streams in the hope they’re processed at a local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), causing more problems than if the same item was placed in with regular household trash.
A lack of awareness around these issues can mean that they are regarded as largely inconsequential, however, the end result of this can significantly impact waste diversion targets with high volumes of recyclables then rejected from MRF’s and sent to landfill.
What are the Main Contributors?
Lack of Awareness: This is the primary factor in recycling contamination. If a local recycling system is overly complex for households and challenging to effectively put into action, this lack of clarification can ultimately instigate poor recycling practice, which then increases the risk of contamination, and ultimately leading to increased volumes of rejected materials being sent to landfill.
“Wishcycling”: The act of placing materials in a recycling stream based on assumption of accepted materials by a local MRF, linking back to a lack of awareness. “Wishcycling”, while usually derived from good intentions, significantly increases the likelihood of contamination. Contaminating the waste stream with materials bound for rejection often incurs increased costs due to the extra labor required during sorting.
Evolving Consumer Habits: Online delivery platforms from grocery stores and fast food outlets have transformed the food industry, helping small-scale businesses increase profit margins and remain operational. However, this positive has also been counterbalanced by higher volumes of food waste, combined with materials contaminated with food residue as a result of more packaging waste being collected from households. In contrast to collections made from businesses, the condition of materials upon collection can be harder to determine.
How Can the Capture of Clean Recyclables be Increased?
A progressive number of major cities are adopting zero waste initiatives to develop area-focused recycling programs that aid diversion targets and increase the capture of clean recyclables. Supporting a target of a 50% recycling rate by 2030, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ‘National Recycling Strategy’, published in November 2021, is also the first of its kind to be integrated nationwide, with the reduction of recycling contamination regarded as a central objective.
Reducing recycling contamination, restricting “wishcycling” behavior, and increasing the capture of clean recyclables, can be challenging concepts at community levels. Households will typically involve a diverse level of personal motivations, knowledge of effective recycling practice, and individual circumstances. However, by following simple steps, best practice measures can be encouraged and put into action to achieve these goals, including:
Increasing the accepted materials from households helps to reduce the risk of contamination by enabling a broader range of materials to be processed at a local MRF. The EPA is striving to encourage new markets for recycled materials as part of their national recycling strategy, and this could be encouraged through the integration of new policies or financial incentives to help boost demand for new materials.
Developing more robust policies and regulations for the disposal of clean and dry recyclables would help to provide a better consistency of acceptable materials from households, while reducing contamination at the point of collection. While fines for non compliance are a more drastic policy that will typically incur frustration from households, they can provide an incentive for good practice.
A shortcoming of modern recycling systems is that they can overly complicate what should be a simple process, which then makes “wishcycling” more of a common response. This can be overcome by providing easily understandable visual guidance, such as clear color coding and iconography, to help clarify specific recycling streams, advise households of the accepted items, and minimize contamination.
Hazardous waste items are highly problematic when disposed of in regular waste or recycling streams, contributing to serious health and safety concerns for collection teams and MRF personnel. Advising households of the dangers involved with clear information can be combined with implementing dedicated drop-off points and specialist collection services, helping to ensure safe and appropriate disposal and reduce the risk of contamination.
metroSTOR Recycling Infrastructure
Recognizing the challenges for residents in multi-family households and communal neighborhoods, metroSTOR has developed a range of dedicated, user-friendly recycling facilities to ensure effective separation and containerization of recyclables awaiting collection.
Utilizing restricted apertures combined with internal deflector plates helps to reduce contamination and increase capture by ensuring recyclables are deposited directly into the open container and no materials are left around the bins or wind-blown to surrounding areas. A range of recycling graphics offers clear and easy to interpret graphics to make it as simple as possible for users to engage with the facility correctly.
Offering a clean design and visual messaging opportunities that are instantly recognizable and consistent with local or regional streams, the metroSTOR product range provides crucial recycling infrastructure for convenient residential and public locations, providing an effective means to aid capture close to real points of generation.