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What is Wish Cycling and Why is it Bad?

Wish cycling contributes to Australia's contaminated recycling problem by causing incorrectly labelled waste, non-recyclable waste, and contaminated recyclable materials to degrade other batches of recycling.
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In today’s age of environmental consciousness, recycling has become a byword for sustainability and responsible waste management. That said, there is a widespread problem in recycling culture known as “wish cycling,” that hampers the primary goal of sustainable waste management. Wish cycling refers to the practice of tossing questionable items into the bin with a hope that they’ll magically get recycled, despite uncertainty about their recyclability.

A recent report by Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) licensee Cleanaway, found that 89% of Australians consider recycling important, but only 25% claimed to separate waste into the appropriate bins when given the opportunity. As a result, the question arises, why do so many of us engage in wish cycling? Is it motivated by a real desire to positively impact the environment, or is it simply a convenient way to relieve our guilt over excess waste?

Research conducted by the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) reveals that more than 30% of items disposed of in recycling bins are not suitable for recycling. Wish cycling contributes to Australia’s contaminated recycling problem by causing incorrectly labelled waste, non-recyclable waste, and contaminated recyclable materials to degrade other batches of recycling.

Causes of Wish Cycling

1. Lack of Clear Recycling Awareness

Many people engage in wish cycling because they lack awareness about what can and cannot be recycled. Recycling guidelines often vary widely across municipalities and states, and they are not always easily accessible or clear.  

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), over 17% of Australians report difficulty accessing recycling information. As a result, people toss items into the recycling bin without fully understanding if they’re recyclable or not. For instance, plastic bags, although commonly found in recycling bins, are not typically accepted by curbside recycling programs and can cause significant issues at recycling facilities.  

Another common misconception revolves around the recyclability of pizza boxes. We believe cardboard is easily recyclable, but pizza boxes cannot always be recycled due to the grease and food residue that they frequently contain. This contamination makes it difficult for recycling facilities to process cardboard efficiently. As a result, contaminated pizza boxes get rejected for recycling and sent to the landfill instead. This emphasises the importance of properly disposing of items and knowing what can and cannot be recycled in order to reduce waste and protect the environment.

2. Greenwashing and Misinformation

A misleading marketing strategy that portrays products as more environmentally sustainable than they truly are can contribute to wish cycling. Research conducted by Choice, an Australian consumer advocacy group, revealed that 60% of Australians feel confused by environmental claims on product packaging.  

Many companies label their products as “recyclable” without offering clear instructions on how and where to recycle them. This lack of clear information can confuse consumers and encourage them to believe that any goods labelled as recyclable can be tossed into the recycling bin.  

Not all recycling facilities can process all types of materials, making wish cycling counterproductive. The Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP), developed by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), facilitates collaboration between packaging producers and recyclers to optimise packaging design for recyclability.

3. Convenience over Conscience

In our fast-paced society, convenience often trumps conscientiousness. People often opt for wish cycling as it offers a quick solution compared to the time-consuming process of researching proper disposal methods or exploring alternative solutions.  

Tossing an item into the recycling bin is more convenient than investing effort into identifying its recyclability or ensuring proper disposal. This habit reflects a disconnect between a person’s actions and their environmental consequences, highlighting “wish cycling” as a quick fix without addressing the root cause of the problem.

4. Being Optimistically Biased

People generally believe that small acts of wish cycling, such as tossing items into recycling bins without proper sorting or verification, will cause no harm, especially when they see others doing the same. This false sense of reassurance feeds the cycle of wishful recycling, as people convince themselves that their actions are very small. This cycle continues as people do not understand the ongoing impact of their actions on the environment and recycling systems. 

Despite the good intentions behind wish cycling, the negative effects on recycling efforts can’t be overlooked. Contaminated recycling loads increase processing costs, reduce efficiency at recycling facilities, and even divert recyclable materials to landfills. To combat wish cycling, governments and organisations must collaborate to provide clear and consistent recycling guidelines, invest in infrastructure to improve recycling capacity, and promote sustainable consumption habits. 

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