What is “wish-cycling” and how do we stop doing it? Wish-cycling is when you put an item in the recycling bin in the hope it will be recycled. Often people put things in the recycling because it makes them feel better about their waste. I get it, nobody wants to produce a lot of garbage, and recycling feels like we are doing something positive, even though we may know recycling itself has many issues.
So, what is the problem with recycling? Many materials we hope are getting recycled don’t end up being recycled at all. When items are put in the recycling that cannot be recycled or have not been cleaned properly, these items don’t get recycled, they actually contaminate other items that were properly recycled, which can then either end up in the landfill or to waste-to-energy. Therefore, when wish-cycling and trying to reduce waste, you unintentionally create more.
When sorting your recycling it is important to check the numbers on the container. Although items #1-7 are technically accepted in BC, only numbers #1, #2, #4 and #5 have consistent recycling markets. Therefore it is best to avoid #3, #6 and #7 as much as possible. Items that cannot be recycled can end up in landfill or go to waste-to-energy, a facility that burns waste and turns it into electricity.
Commonly improperly recycled items:
Any cardboard or paper products that have grease or food on them cannot be recycled because of the contamination. However, they can be composted!
Rip off the top (if it’s clean) and throw it in the paper recycling and put the greasy bottom in the compost. You can also support vendors that have a liner sheet in the box that prevents the cardboard from being contaminated (or encourage your current pizza place to do this)!
Plastic take-out food containers
While some take-out containers can be recycled, they must be cleaned as any food residue left on them will contaminate the recycling and it will end up in the landfill or waste-to-energy. The most commonly used plastic for take-out containers is #6 which typically doesn’t get recycled.
Reducing your take-out will reduce your garbage and recycling, but if you are ordering take-out, search out places that use less waste and let you use your own reusable bag when you arrive to pick up. Ordering sushi? Ask for no chopsticks or soy sauce and use what you have at home!
Most single use coffee cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic; this is what makes them leak proof which also makes them hard to recycle. Currently the City of Vancouver states that you can put your coffee cups in your blue bin with other containers (not with your paper). But, it's important to note that most of these coffee cups end up as waste-to-energy and are not recycled. Paper sleeves can be recycled and go in the paper bin. The lids can go in your plastic recycling. But, many lids are a #6 and may end up in waste-to-energy as well.
Even during COVID-19, some coffee shops are safely allowing you to use your own cup. Ask your local cafe to see what options they are offering.
Compostable “plastic” containers
Single use cups and "plastic" containers that are marked as compostable cannot be composted in the city’s green bins. In order to compost these containers, very specific conditions are required, including high temperatures, bacteria, and a long period of composting time.
Some stores may have compost collection on site that is sent to a composting facility that can handle the requirements for compostable plastics. However, if you are taking the containers home it is best to put them in the garbage to avoid contamination.
These are not accepted in any city curb-side recycling programs. However, clean soft plastics such as grocery bags and packages can be recycled at specific facilities.
London Drugs has soft plastic recycling drop offs at many of their locations and you can also take them to the Zero Waste Centre in Vancouver as well as other Recycle BC depots.
It can be recycled! However, again it has to be clean with no food or grease on it. Small pieces are hard to process, so collect enough to make a ball at least the size of your fist before putting in the recycling.
The solution to wish-cycling:
- Reduce the amount of packaging you use by buying foods in bulk in reusable or returnable containers.
- Make sure you wash recyclable items well before putting them in the bin.
- Check online with your local municipality about which items are accepted in your area. https://recyclebc.ca and https://recycling.metrovancouver.org are both great sites to help you figure out what items go in your curbside bins or where they can be dropped off. These websites also both have convenient apps you can download to look at quickly on your phone.
- If in doubt, throw it out. It is better to throw out an item than put it in the recycling if you aren’t sure, and risk contamination.
When Kaila Borrelli isn’t working as a Program Manager in telecommunications, she is advocating for sustainable living. Kaila believes that there is a business case to be made for living an environmentally-sustainable lifestyle, and that financial responsibility and conscious consumerism go hand-in-hand. You can find practical tips on how to reduce your footprint on her instagram @sustainably_urban and on her blog www.sustainablyurban.ca.
Special mention to John Kendler from Urban Impact Recycling for helping us stay up to date with current recycling practices.