Wishful Thinking, Wasteful Recycling: Tackling the Wishcycling Challenge

   Chris Williams


The ‘wishcycling’ phenomenon, highlights the issue of incorrectly recycling items that are unlikely to be recycled, leading to contamination and legitimate recycling being discarded.

The goal outlined in the UK government’s Circular Economy Package to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035, with no more than 10% ending up in landfill, is ambitious but necessary for a sustainable future. Wishcycling, though well-intentioned, is hindering the achievement of these targets.

The fact that 80 percent of UK households remain unclear on effective recycling practices, underscores the need for comprehensive education and awareness campaigns. Increasing public knowledge about what can and cannot be recycled is vital to avoid contamination and improve recycling rates.

By encouraging households to be more selective in their recycling choices, the government aims to reduce the amount of contaminated waste entering processing centres and subsequently ending up in landfill sites. This approach will not only safeguard the environment but also optimise the efficiency of recycling facilities, reducing costs and promoting a more sustainable waste management model.

Empowering change

Wishcycling occurs due to a lack of awareness regarding what can and cannot be recycled, as well as misconceptions about the potential usefulness of disposed items. The variations in recycling programs across jurisdictions further contribute to confusion among households.

The consequences of wishcycling can be detrimental to the recycling process. Overloaded recycling trucks, the need for manual separation of unwanted items, contamination of recycling mills, and potential damage to machinery and facilities are some of the challenges it presents. These issues can significantly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of recycling efforts.

The introduction of separate bins for glass, metal, cardboard, and food waste, with local councils determining the accepted recyclable items, is a practical approach to enhancing recycling practices. This move not only encourages proper sorting but also facilitates efficient collection and processing.

By promoting clear guidelines, conducting awareness campaigns, and providing accessible information about local recycling programs, we can empower individuals to make informed decisions and contribute to a more sustainable ecosystem.

Collaboration between government, waste management companies, and citizens is crucial to address the wishcycling issue.

A long way to go

Waste management company Biffa found that nearly one-fifth (17%) of England and Wales’ waste cannot be recycled due to contamination. The research findings from WRAP, also highlighted that 82% of UK households regularly include non-recyclable items in their recycling collections, emphasising the urgent need to address the confusing and broken state of the UK’s recycling system.

The lack of consistency in recycling practices across different areas in the UK is a significant challenge. With 39 different bin collection regimes across 391 local authorities, the rules regarding recyclability and the preparation of items vary widely. Confusing messaging on packaging further complicates matters, with misleading logos and statements that may not align with the recycling capabilities of specific areas.

The recent Defra briefing on reducing contamination and wishcycling through new guidance has raised more questions than answers regarding the government’s consistency reforms. While Defra aims to simplify and make waste and recycling collections more convenient for homeowners, there are concerns within the waste management and recycling sector about the next steps for consistent recycling collection reforms.

The consistent recycling collections plans have faced multiple delays, including the most recent postponement after the local elections. These delays have been influenced by concerns raised by households about the prospect of having ‘seven bins’ and the potential chaos it could cause.

Councils are particularly frustrated by the lack of answers on various aspects, such as exemptions, chargeable garden waste collections, new burdens funding, applicability to businesses, and producer payments. The absence of clarity on these crucial matters impedes effective planning and implementation.

Defra’s intention to make recycling easier and achieve comprehensive and consistent recycling services is commendable. However, the lack of progress and unresolved questions have raised doubts about the implementation timeline. It is crucial for Defra to address these concerns and provide clear guidelines to ensure a smooth transition to improved recycling practices.

As discussions continue, it is important for Defra to engage with stakeholders, including local authorities and the private sector, to strike a balance between efficiency, practicality, and environmental benefits. We hope that Defra will address the outstanding issues promptly.

Clarity, consistency and collaboration

Addressing the issue of wishcycling requires a multi-faceted approach involving alignment across local councils, public awareness campaigns, improved labelling on packaging, waste sorting technology, packaging redesign, and a focus on waste reduction and biodegradability.

The government’s plans to crack down on wishcycling and encourage more careful sorting of recyclables are steps in the right direction. However, a comprehensive solution requires making recycling easier, more consistent, and aligned across all regions. Simplified packaging and clear guidelines that people can understand will empower households to make informed recycling decisions and contribute to a greener future.

It is crucial to address the confusion surrounding recyclability to combat the negative perceptions associated with certain materials. While there is a growing movement away from plastics, for example, it’s important to recognise that alternatives may not always be more sustainable and can carry larger environmental footprints.

Technology, can play a significant role in educating and assisting, making recycling processes easier and providing comprehensive information. Implementing waste sorting technology at recycling centres can efficiently identify and remove mistakenly recycled items, and redesigning packaging with easily recyclable materials and promoting the use of fully biodegradable products are long-term solutions.

At ISB Global, we believe that a collective effort involving government, industry, and citizens is needed, and by working together and embracing responsible recycling practices, we can create a cleaner, greener future for generations to come.

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