What Happens to Incorrectly Recycled Trash?

I’m guilty. You’re guilty. We’re all guilty. When it comes to wishcycling, this is the unfortunate truth. It’s almost too easy and convenient when the regular garbage bin is overflowing to put that plastic bag, greasy pizza box, or the odd piece of styrofoam in the recycling bin.

We do it with good intentions. We know these types of waste are harmful to the environment, and we want to do our part, even though we’re pretty sure our recycling company cannot process that type of waste. Never mind that we pushed the questionable packaging plastic under a more benign piece of scrap paper to avoid being called out.

On that note, what does happen to incorrectly recycled trash?

How Incorrect Trash Sorting Happens

One of the main reasons for incorrectly sorted trash is “wishcycling.” Wishcycling refers to the practice of placing items in the recycling bin that are not actually recyclable in the hope that they will be able to be recycled.

Not all incorrect recycling originates from wishcycling habits. Sometimes we don’t think about what bin we’re using. These human errors frequently occur when visiting an unfamiliar home, changing our trash bin setup, or when we’re in a rush.

Sometimes we aren’t aware that something we thought could be recycled cannot be. Simple ignorance strikes when we move to a new city with different recycling regulations or when codes are updated, and we miss the memo.

What Goes Down at the Recycling Center

When we mix non-recyclable materials with recyclable materials, it’s called contamination. Contamination can make it difficult or impossible for recycling facilities to process the materials properly. Some of the consequences include:

Landfilled Recycling:

In the worst case, contaminated recycling can result in the entire batch being sent to a landfill. Our good intentions and false hope that more trash gets recycled get flipped on their head. Now even the good stuff won’t be recycled, and the time and effort you put into cleaning out those yogurt containers are wasted.

Increased Costs:

More likely than throwing out the whole lot, recycling centers will pay people to sort through it. Sorting is a laborious process that exacerbates an already tight budget. According to a study by the National Waste and Recycling Association, contamination can increase the cost of recycling by as much as 25%. Ultimately, these increased costs will be passed back to us, taxpayers and consumers.

Safety Hazards:

Some items that are not meant to be recycled, like batteries or hazardous chemicals, can pose a safety hazard to workers at the recycling facility. Other items can jam machines or clog conveyor belts. All of these things put workers at increased risk.

Decreased Efficiency:

Another problem caused when the wrong materials end up in the recycling bin is inefficiency. When recycling facilities have to sort through a large amount of non-recyclable materials, it slows down the process. Throughout the world, there is a backlog of recycling, so a further decrease in efficiency makes the backlog issue even worse.

From Wishcycling to Rightcycling

Becoming a rightcycler, a person who recycles the right stuff isn’t a u-turn identity change. It’s simple, saves time, and helps the planet. Here are three high-impact tips to get you on your way:

1. Research Commonly Misplaced Items

The first step is to research what can be recycled in your area and only put those materials in the recycling bin. You can usually find information on what can and can’t be recycled on the website of your local waste management department or by contacting them directly. For example, you’ll find what you need for Sacramento County waste management here.

2. Err on the Side of Caution

Apply the adage, “If in doubt, throw it out.” While an expert recycler will know the answer for every grey area item, it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone does. Recycle everything you know can be, but if there’s a question, it helps everyone in the system if you put it in the general trash bin.

3. Learn as You Go

Don’t look up every item you’ve ever put in the recycling now. You’ll be overwhelmed with information and likely fail to remember much of what you learn. A more sustainable practice is to learn as you go. When you throw away something you haven’t before, check to see if your city recycles it. Your bank of knowledge will build up naturally over time.

It’s time to be more mindful of what we’re recycling. Putting the wrong things in the recycling bin can cause a number of problems, including contamination, safety hazards, decreased efficiency, and increased costs. By researching what can be recycled in your area and making sure items are clean and empty before recycling, we can help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our recycling programs. Remember, recycling is important, but it’s even more important to recycle correctly.