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WishCycling - Is Your Plastic Really Recycled?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked


Story at-a-glance -

  • Wishcycling is the term used to describe the collection of items thought to reach the recycle plants, but which are so contaminated the plants have no recourse but to send the items to the landfill, increasing an ever-growing problem of garbage disposal
  • Recycling was originally designed to reduce the impact garbage has on the planet; where Baltimore once sent a small percentage to the landfill, currently as much as one-third of recyclables collected end up there
  • These habits are driving up costs of recycling and reusing products, and increasing the growth of trash; researchers have also found a greater amount of macroplastic in the oceans, pieces of plastic close to the original size of the product, such as plastic bags and fishing gear
  • Some estimate the cost of plastic pollution to the environment will reach 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; in comparison, all global forms of transportation now account for 15% of all emissions
  • You may have an impact on rising pollution rates by avoiding common recycling mistakes, such as shredding paper to be recycled, adding pizza boxes or soft plastic grocery bags, or leaving food residue on plastic material

The growing amount of plastics found in the ocean is a result of human behavior and is slowly destroying a vast resource responsible for supporting life. According to the National Ocean Service,1 the ocean produces over half the oxygen across the world and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere.

While you may have thought this honor resided with the Amazon rainforest, it rests on the shoulders of the oceans covering 70% of the surface of the planet.2 The health of the ocean is responsible for climate regulation and provides economic benefit producing $282 billion in goods and services from ocean dependent businesses.

These businesses employ 3 million people.3 The World Wildlife Federation4 points out the oceans are an integral part of the water cycle in climate regulation and clean rainfall. More than a billion people consume protein harvested from the ocean.5

Plastics are killing massive whales, dolphins, birds and sea turtles. Plastic bags and bottles washed up on the beach have created more than just an impact on your next beach vacation. The ocean may be where we enjoy surfing, sailing, diving and just relaxing, but it serves a much greater purpose.

Unfortunately, the manufacture and disposal of single use plastics has significantly impacted the health of ocean wildlife and threatens the future of human survival. While we have relied on recycling to reduce this impact, it appears recycling is becoming wishcycling.

Are You Wish-Cycling or Recycling?

Recycling was originally designed to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, conserve natural resources and prevent pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):6

"Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Recycling can benefit your community, the economy and the environment."

According to the EPA, practically everything can be recycled, but only certain items are accepted, and even then they have to be properly sorted or they still end up in the dump.7 Recycling 2,000 pounds of paper may save 17 trees, two barrels of oil, 4,100 kilowatts of energy and 3.2 cubic yards of landfill. However, it's important to remember collection is not the same as recycling.

According to the University of Southern Indiana,8 when 2,000 pounds of paper are recycled it may save 17 trees, 380 gallons of water, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water. Recycling paper without contamination has a large impact on resources, as those 2,000 pounds represent a 58% water savings and 64% energy savings, and releases 60 pounds less of air pollution.

Unfortunately, where local governments once made money selling paper, bottles and cans, regions like those around Baltimore have now started spending taxpayer money to recycle, as it brings just 25% of the price it commanded seven years ago.

Recycling experts are calling this wishcycling, created by the increasing number of items that cannot be recycled, yet land in the blue bin at the bottom of the driveway. Michael Taylor, director of recycling operations for the North American environmental services company Waste Management, commented:9 "People are thinking they're doing the right thing. Our message is, when in doubt, throw it out."

In a Waste Management press release, the company discussed the impact of China's new import policies.10 Going forward, China will not purchase recyclables if there is just a fraction of nonrecyclable items mixed in. As a result, the focus must be on recycling the right way to reduce the amount of garbage ending up in landfills and plastics making their way to the ocean.

The key challenge is to reduce contamination in what most people already consider garbage. In the past, the message has emphasized the importance of placing recyclable items into recycling containers.

Once there, it was out of sight, out of mind and up to recyclers to ensure the discarded materials ended up in the right place. The focus must change to teaching consumers that only recycled material may be place in their recycling containers.11

"[P]lacing non-recyclable materials into the cart leads to additional economic and environmental costs, with no benefits and (ironically) less recycling. We call this wishful recycling 'wishcycling' and it is lethal to our nation's recycling programs," Waste Management says.12

Current Habits Are Driving Costs of Recycling

Waste Management is one of the industry giants in recycling and garbage control. They report the average rate of contamination has grown to 25%.13 This means 500 pounds for every 2,000 collected at the curb is ultimately sent to landfills and not recycled.

This increases the cost of sorting material and transporting and disposing trash, and means items that may have been recycled are ruined due to contamination. China instituted a contamination limit requiring processors to shrink 500 pounds of contaminated recyclables to 10 pounds of contamination.

These guidelines increase the cost of processing. To ensure recycling remains sustainable it is necessary for individuals to commit to recycling only the right things, in the right way. Short of this, we all are contributing to a problem with a negative environmental impact.

Most of the time, recycling is done to cut back on waste being sent to landfills. But when an incorrect item or material is added, it affects the recycling material around it. In other words, the greasy pizza box is not recyclable and also may have contaminated aluminum cans and glass jars.14

Recycling facilities use automated sorters to separate materials. A series of spinning wheels toss the material so newspapers and other lighter-weight papers are up and heavy materials fall to the bottom. Magnets will pull out metal cans and an optical scanner is used to find plastics. Once it's sorted, the material is pressed and tied into bales.

The rising costs incurred by contaminated recyclables are affecting local and regional governments as they must pay a processing fee for the items residents recycle. The Baltimore Sun15 reports that in 2015, Carroll County would be paid $15 per ton of recyclables sent to the Waste Management Elkridge facility. It now pays the facility an average of $20 per ton to get rid of it.

There Is More Plastic Pollution in the Ocean Than Previously Measured

A new study published in Nature16 demonstrates the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean has been increasing at a rate greater than anticipated. The researchers presented a time series of events beginning in 1957 and ending in 2016, covering 6.5 million nautical miles.

The records were based on plastics entangled in a marine sampler and provided consistent information from some of the earliest records to the present. While many past studies17,18 have focused on the amount of microplastic found in the oceans being consumed by wildlife, this study found a significant increase in the amount of macroplastic, such as entire plastic bags, fishing gear and twine.

The original focus of the research was on plankton. However, the researchers noted the volunteers fixing the equipment consistently talked about how much plastic was creating problems.

Co-author Clare Ostle, Ph.D., research scientist at the Marine Biological Association, commented there were few historical records of ocean plastic pollution, so they used the incidence in their study to determine how often entanglements occurred.19

They had 60 years of ocean data covering the North Atlantic and adjacent oceans and found entanglement in the equipment increased 10 times from 2000 to the present. The first bag found in their equipment was off the coast of Northwest Ireland.20

Experts estimate21 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Additionally, the growth in plastic production since its introduction has been extraordinary,22 much of it single use plastic requiring disposal. The researchers wrote their findings were the first to confirm a significant increase in plastic pollution in the open ocean since the 1990s.23

Environmental Impact of Plastic May Soon Rival Toxic Exhaust Emissions

They hypothesize there may be a sink of plastic within the global oceans, leading to an underestimation of surface sea plastics. This has significant implications for plastic pollution worldwide.

Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer of North America for Oceana, a nonpartisan nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring the oceans, was not involved in these studies. She told CNN she was encouraged to see people trying to reduce our carbon footprint but has watched the growth of plastic manufacturing with increasing concern. She commented:24

"Plastic is a cheap product to make, but it comes at a high price to our environment. I can't even stand the thought of it, when I go to the beach and see all the plastic on the waves and in the sand. It's found in most every bird stomach and in sea turtles and whales that starve to death, and the problem is getting much worse."

Information published25 in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that if the trend of plastic production continues, it will comprise 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In comparison, all global forms of transportation now account for 25% all emissions,26 up from 14% in 2010.27

Your Recycling Mistakes Impact Local Landfills

You may have been filling your recycle bin in the hope of reducing the impact on landfills. However, what you may not realize is while cardboard is welcome, greasy pizza boxes are not. And, if plastic containers have too much food residue, they may defile an entire bale of plastic.

Paper is recycled but if it's shredded it gets stuck to glass bottles and becomes useless. David Biderman, CEO of The Solid Waste Association of North America, says:28

"Many Americans are not very good recyclers. What we've lost sight of is that we should be reducing the amount of waste that we generate. It became easier to just throw things in the blue bin."

Recycling requirements vary by municipality, but in general consider these suggestions to determine if you're making common recycling mistakes. To verify recycling guidelines in your area, contact your local facility.

Soft plastic — Soft plastics such as plastic shopping bags and food storage bags cannot be recycled as they clog the sorting machines. Never place recyclables in plastic bags,29 as the recycling facility will toss the entire bag with its contents into a landfill. Instead, collect your plastic bags and take them to your local supermarket for recycling.

Hard plastic — Most rigid plastics such as bottles and rigid packaging may be recycled but there are exceptions. Look for the triangular recycling symbol.30 The number tells you what kind of plastic the product is made of. Keep in mind whether or not an item may be recycled will depend on your local recycling rules, so get the specifics from your municipality.

Plastic straws, unfortunately, cannot be recycled and are destined for a landfill no matter what, which is why they're best avoided in the first place. In all instances, remember to separate bottles and caps, as they are made from different materials and cannot be recycled together. Typically, caps will need to be discarded as they are too small to be sorted by the machines.

Food containers — Plastic materials with food residues cannot be recycled, so make sure you wash any recyclable plastics in contact with food or beverages, with the exception of water. Allow them to dry before you place it in the recycle bin.31

Any paper products with grease will be considered a contaminant as they cannot be recycled, such as pizza boxes. Instead, remove the greasy section and toss it in the trash while recycling the rest.

These items cannot be recycled — Your municipality may restrict more than the list of items gathered by Mother Nature Network.32 Others have special programs to deal with larger items or hazardous materials. It is always best to check with your local municipality.

Aerosol cans


Brightly dyed paper

Ceramics and pottery


Hazardous waste

Incandescent light bulbs

Household glass

Yogurt cups

Medical waste

Napkins and paper towels

Paper towels

Pizza boxes

Plastic bags and plastic wrap

Plastic screw-on tops

Juice boxes and other coated cardboard drink containers

Plastic-coated boxes, plastic food boxes, or plastic without recycling mark

Tyvek shipping envelopes

Shredded paper


Takeout containers


Wire hangers

Wet paper

Recycle Like an Expert

Proper recycling is more important than ever to reduce the impact on our environment. But there is more than one way to recycle your waste. Although composting may not sound glamorous, or even important, when you dig below the surface you realize diverting food waste from landfills may have a large impact.

Food waste is the largest component in landfills, making up 22% of the waste stream.33 Additionally, when compost is added to the soil it adds valuable organic matter and reduces topsoil loss. You'll find more information about recycling like an expert and using compost to improve your soil, whether you have a large or small space, in these previous articles: