Wishcycling is the bane of recycling programs. It happens when well-intentioned people put the wrong thing in a recycling bin.

Chaz Miller, Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry

March 6, 2023

3 Min Read
When Wishcycling Met Rosy Scenario: Recycling Goals Should Be Ambitious But Also Need To Be Realistic

Wishcycling is the bane of recycling programs. It happens when well-intentioned people put the wrong thing in a recycling bin. Usually, they do this because they hope the item is recyclable.

This wishful thinking creates problems for recycling facilities. Processing equipment doesn’t work on the power of wishes.  Instead, it has to find and reject the misplaced item.  Some wishcycling is harmful.  Plastic bags are a particular problem because of their ability to clog processing machinery.

Unfortunately, legislators and recycling advocates are also guilty of wishcycling. This happens when they endorse policies that sound good on paper but fail to take into account either science or human behavior. I’ve seen more and more of this in the last few years due to the increase in recycling bills at the state and federal levels. 

Recycling goals were the first manifestation of wishcycling policy. They are rarely set with any consideration of how much can be recycled, how long it will take, or how people will respond. The assumption is always a lot, in a few years and everyone will recycle. 

As a result, states and local governments struggle to meet their goals. The more aspirational the goal, the lower the chance of success.  have no doubt the legislators who voted for the goal meant well. I also have no doubt they did little serious analysis of what could be achieved. 

Recycled content goals can be another manifestation of wishcycling. I have testified in favor of minimum content laws. They will expand the size of the market for recyclables but have less effect on prices. In my testimony, I’ve also suggested amendments to make the goals realistic.

Recycled content goals should be based on the potential supply of the recyclable along with how much of it is lost during collection, processing and remanufacturing. After all, nothing is “infinitely” recyclable. Loss is inevitable whether it is caused by failure in processing, shredding or the intense heat used in making glass bottles and aluminum cans.

In addition, products covered by minimum content laws often have competing end uses that are not subject to the minimum content requirement. For the last three decades, fiber markets have bought the biggest percentage of recycled PET. Only in the last two years have bottles edged past those markets. Don’t expect the fiber markets to go away just because of a minimum content requirement for bottles. 

Rosy Scenario is a term for claiming the success of a proposed policy based on overly optimistic assumptions. Rosy is lurking on the sidelines of recycling and minimum content goals but steps onto front stage in the packaging extended producer responsibility debate. This is particularly true when predictions are made for increased recycling. 

A recent study predicted EPR recycling rates at or near 70 percent in five states. EPR will clearly help fund local government recycling programs. It will increase recycling as a result of the publicity and heightened education. But how much is a different issue and 70 percent is way over the top. 

If, for instance, you live in a deposit state you have a financial motive of getting your money back. Yet those states struggle to hit a 70 percent redemption rate. Why would a system without any financial incentive do better?

The study made no comment on how EPR will increase recycling in places such as apartment buildings where recycling struggles. It made no comment on the reality that a quarter of our population is indifferent to recycling. It made a passing nod to cultural differences in the countries which claimed high recycling rates but expressed no skepticism over rates in the 90 percent range. 

When Rosy is too good to be true perhaps a little critical thinking is in order. We can’t wish our way to success. That takes realistic understanding of human behavior, goals that challenge but can be achieved and hard work.

About the Author(s)

Chaz Miller

Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry, National Waste & Recycling Association

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry.

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