Research has shown that recycling can be a positive emotional experience for people. We want to believe there is a better destination for our waste than landfill, incineration or escaping into nature to become litter. However, confusion and lack of knowledge around recycling can compromise our good intentions and efforts.
A recent report by GECA licensee Cleanaway found that 89% of Australians consider recycling important. However, only 25% of Australians claimed to separate waste into the appropriate bins at every opportunity.
According to the Collins English Dictionary definition, wishcycling is “the practice of putting something in a recycling bin without being certain that it is actually recyclable”.
Research commissioned by Planet Ark shows that 36% of people believe most recycling goes to landfills. However, most of the recycling material collected by Australian councils is recycled. According to the National Waste Report, 84 – 96% of kerbside recycling is recycled, and 4 – 16% goes to landfill due to unsuitable material going in the wrong bin.
We sat down with Planet Ark’s Head of Circular Economy Programs, Ryan Collins, to unpack how we can all take steps to do better and end wishcycling.
What do people often get wrong about recycling?
The most common recycling mistakes are putting plastic bags and soft plastics in the home recycling bin – these cause problems at the Material Recycling Facility (MRF) and get caught up in the sorting machines. These items can be dropped off at Coles and Woolworths in the REDcycle bin for recycling.
Another common mistake is placing recyclables in a plastic bag in the home recycling bin. These bags get picked out manually and end up in landfill. All recyclable items should be kept loose in the recycling bin. Food scraps are another common problem as they can lower the quality of the paper stream in mixed systems. It’s best to follow council instructions for food organics or use your own compost bin or worm farm.
What are the impacts on wishcycling, and how big is this issue in Australia?
Wishcycling is a problem in Australia. The average Australian home recycling bin contains about 13% contamination, but this varies from council to council. It can cause increased recycling costs through the extra time and resources needed to unclog or repair machinery. If in doubt, leave it out!
Who is responsible for the amount of waste we have? Individuals, businesses, manufacturers or government?
Waste is everyone’s responsibility, and it starts at the design phase. Products and packaging need to be designed by manufacturers with their end of life in mind. Businesses need to take responsibility for the waste they produce and the waste produced in a product value chain.
The good news is that this is now a real government focus with investment in product stewardship schemes helping drive these initiatives. Government can also help with investment in the right sort of behaviour change education for businesses and individuals.
And of course, individuals need to play their role by voting with their dollars and purchasing products made by manufacturers that take sustainability seriously. This can include looking for products or packaging using recycled content to close the recycling loop.
How do we solve wishcycling?
Designing out waste and keeping materials circulating are vital principles of a circular economy, but there is a knowledge gap. Planet Ark’s recent report for the Australian Circular Economy Hub, Circularity in Australian Business: Awareness, Knowledge and Perceptions, found 81% of business decision-makers said they were knowledgeable about the circular economy, but only 27% could correctly define what it was.
So education is critical for businesses and government. Individuals can avoid wishcycling with the mantra “Check it before you chuck it” and look for the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) on packaging, or check Recycling Near You for council services and drop off recycling options. Again, if in doubt, leave it out. You can also check Planet Ark’s new Recycling Guide.