Why wishcycling only makes more waste

Wishcycling is putting something in your recycling because you WISH it to be recycled, without knowing for sure if it CAN be. It’s a huge problem for waste recycling centres.


Wishcyclers want to help the environment. They are well-intentioned people. There’s no doubt about it.

Unfortunately, when they put something in their recycling bin because they WISH it can be recycled rather than because they KNOW it can be, it can produce a heck of a lot more waste than simply throwing it in the trash.

Wishcycling can contaminate a whole truckful of recycling and cause the entire load to have to be sent to landfill or be incinerated. It can also damage the sorting machines at the local waste recycling facility, resulting in extremely costly repair bills. All because someone wished and hoped rather than checking.

Eco-guilt and ignorance

Sadly, it is usually the most environmentally conscious people who are the worst offenders. The cause of these poor decisions can usually be traced to feelings of eco-guilt or sometimes ignorance. And because they don’t know they are doing it wrong, they keep on doing it, causing the same problems again and again.

Eco-guilt is a relatively modern concept, stemming from increased public awareness about how we are wasting resources and trashing our beautiful planet. It can develop into eco-neurosis, whereas eco-awareness is what’s really needed.

Ignorance can sometimes be due to a lack of communication by whoever operated the local waste recycling centre in an area. The more effort they make to inform households about what can and cannot be recycled, the better the system works.

But there can still be confusion. Everyone knows these days, for example, that batteries can be recycled. But not everyone realizes they can’t be put in with your other household recycling. This creates such a fire risk that teams of people have to be employed to pick them out by hand on the beltlines, and inevitably some will get missed. Our local recycling centre was closed for several weeks recently because of such a fire.

Dirty recycling

A common belief among wishcyclers is that dirty recycling can be magically washed clean, which isn’t true. Pizza boxes containing pizza crusts, and food and liquid containers that still have food and liquids in them have to be picked out by hand, and any that are missed can clog or damage machines.

Soiled nappies/diapers are a huge problem too. Because they are labelled “disposable”, some people take that to mean “recyclable”. But they are not. Not at all.

They are made of a mixture of natural and synthetic materials that can’t be broken down, so they can never be recycled, and especially not after they’ve been contaminated by pee and poo. Even those labelled as “biodegradable” or “compostable” cannot be put in recycling because they are designed to decompose in landfill. There’s one enterprising Dutch company that has figured out how to process and recycle nappies, but this is an unusual exception rather than the norm.

Items that can be recycled, but not through your household system

Some of these items can be recycled, but generally not through your usual waste collection service. You’ll need to look for schemes in your area that handle them:

  • Batteries
  • Clothing
  • Energy saving light bulbs
  • Eyeglasses
  • Ink cartridges
  • Knitting wool
  • Metal items, such as cutlery, kitchenware, car parts, etc
  • Paint
  • Plastic film wrapping for food items, magazines, etc.
  • Plastic shopping bags

Never put these items in your household recycling bin

There are sure to be some exceptions, but here are some of the main items that most waste recycling centres are not equipped to handle:

  • Aerosol cans that still have contents
  • Bamboo food trays (put these in general waste)
  • Bubblewrap (including the biodegradable type)
  • Cat litter
  • CDs and DVDs
  • Christmas or greetings cards that are shiny or glittery
  • Clingfilm
  • Compostable food trays made of plastic, bamboo, etc (put these in general waste)
  • Dental floss
  • Disposable coffee cups (most brands are not recyclable)
  • Disposable face masks and gloves
  • Electronic gadgets
  • Food bags made of metallized plastic film, such as those used for crisps/potato chips
  • Food residues or waste of any kind
  • Glass cookware such as Pyrex
  • Nappies/diapers
  • Paperboard cereal boxes, shoes boxes, etc, that have been treated with special finishes
  • Photos that have been developed from film
  • Pizza boxes with pizza crusts or greasy residues
  • Plant pots
  • Plastic bottles tops (this varies, so check with your local centre)
  • Plastic netting for fruit and vegetables
  • Plastic razors
  • Polystyrene items such as egg boxes
  • Styrofoam cups or packing materials
  • Shopping receipts printed on thermal paper (because they are coated with bisphenol A)
  • Toothbrushes (including bamboo ones)
  • Used tissues, paper towels or napkins
  • Wet wipes (put in general waste, not down your toilet)
  • Wire coat hangers
  • Wrapping paper that is shiny, glittery or does not bounce back to its original shape when scrunched

Remember – if in doubt, leave it out. Don’t just thrown things in your recycling bin and hope for the best. It could turn out to be someone else’s tedious, unpleasant or even dangerous problem to sort out.

We all need to learn the difference between recyclable, compostable, biodegradable and bio-based plastics, and how to dispose of each type.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2021

A very helpful list of recyclable/non-recyclable items, complied by the North London Waste Authority (you will still need to check the exact policy of your own local waste centre, though).

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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5 Responses to Why wishcycling only makes more waste

  1. I think it depends very much per country, what things can be recycled and how. It even differs per city municipality in one country. So the best advice would be to read the recycling rules that apply in your city, on the official websites.

  2. [In the UK} Calor Gas are running short of empties and are actually paying to get them back – £7.50 I think. Superdrug are collecting empty pill packets – those blister packs half silver foil, half plastic. xx

  3. Looking forward to my next course with you, Karen.

    I recently learned about a place to recycle face masks we’re using in this pandemic period, and found they also have a service for many other kinds of items that have been un-recyclable. It’s a bit pricey of a mail-in service, but they have customers, so thankfully some people are engaging in their work. I thought you and your readers would appreciate the option: Terracyle zero waste boxes

  4. Hi there, thanks for this article. I have been working for a company that runs the waste operations for a county which includes Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) as well as collecting household waste. I’m new to the industry and this past year I’ve learnt the sorts of problems that can arise. Zombie batteries are obvious. The company has in the county 2 MBT plants (mechanical/biological plants). It will take the stuff from general waste and the mixture of the biological waste helps to breakdown and sterilise the waste. But still a lot of the final product will end up incinerated. There is a lot of outreach work to be done e.g. people don’t know what to do with gas bottles – they’re meant to go back to the supplier and not an HWRC site.

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