Waste bins overflowing on the National Mall; Washington, DC
Credit: DrTorstenHenning, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons July 9, 2023

What’s worse than throwing something in the garbage? Wishcycling.

Blog post by Fisher Mallon, Montgomery County 2023 Climate Intern

Odds are you’ve been in a public place and seen a recycling bin overflowing with a few dubious-looking items, or been at home trying to decide whether your mostly-empty plastic cup and straw should go in the recycling or in the trash. Perhaps a few of those times you’ve chosen to recycle the item and felt better that you didn’t contribute trash to a disposal facility.  Unfortunately, in that case, you’ve engaged in wishcycling, and likely condemned an entire batch of recycling to be thrown out.


Recycling Center sorting line


“Wishcycling,” or “wish recycling” is erroneously placing non-recyclable materials in a recycling bin in the hopes that you can keep it out of the trash. It occurs most commonly because people aren’t familiar with the guidelines of their local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) or recycling center. When it does occur, there are three significant consequences for the recycling operations you’re intending to support:

  1. Contamination: Recycling is economically viable because MRFs sort recycled materials by material type and sell the recycled materials to manufacturers. However, if a wrongfully recycled item is detected, it cannot be sold and the entire batch must be thrown out. Therefore, wishcycling creates more waste than it could have avoided.
  2. Wasted time: Wishcycled items cannot be recognized and processed by the machinery that is used in MRFs. Items like styrofoam, plastic bags, clothing, etc., can clog machines and grind a whole recycling operation to a halt while the issue is fixed. Wishcycling thereby prevents additional recycling from being processed.
  3. Wasted Money: While workers repair jammed machinery, the MRF is sitting idle, wasting your taxpayer money. Additionally, extended delays can prevent a MRF from doing business with a manufacturer.


Consequences on an International Scale

In late 2017, wishcycling drew international attention as China announced Operation National Sword. China for decades had been the world’s biggest importer, and recycler, of waste. Operation National Sword startled the international recycling market by drastically decreasing the number of waste import licenses available and by setting strict contamination limits on imports of recycled materials. In the US, where 70% of plastics collected for recycling had previously been sent to China, the policy has resulted in waste piling up at MRFs or being sent to landfills.


Truck dumping trash in a landfill

Credit: khoinguyenfoto, via Pixabay


Operation National Sword demonstrated the necessity for effective recycling. Excessive contamination made mass recycling no longer profitable for China, and in Montgomery County, we play a role in averting the same fate for our MRFs.


What you can do:

First and foremost, avoid disposable plastics. Replace disposable bags, bottles, and containers with reusable products. This reduces the need to keep producing single-use plastics, eliminates the possibility that they end up in landfills or in nature, and reduces stress on MRFs.


bottle, cobalt blue, water bottle, product, water, drinkware, plastic bottle, home accessories, glass bottle, tableware, Free Images In PxHere

Credit: PxHere, CC0


If you cannot avoid disposable materials, practice effective recycling. Become familiar with the recycling guidelines for your locality. DEP provides information to residents about how to recycle right. When researching local recycling options does not offer a clear answer, the best practice is “if in doubt, throw it out.”

If you live in Montgomery County, here are some general guidelines that may dispel your recycling uncertainty:

  • Check the recycling symbol: you can recycle plastic bottles, jars, containers, tubs, lids, and more with these resin numbers: 1,2,3,4,5,7. Number 6 – polystyrene plastics are not recyclable in Montgomery County! Click here for a detailed plastics recycling factsheet.
  • Empty and Rinse Containers: containers with excessive food waste cannot be recycled. Please empty and lightly rinse food and beverage containers.
  • Lids and Caps: Lids and caps can be recycled, but they should be taken off bottles and containers before being placed in the recycling bin.
  • Unrecyclables (keep these out of the recycling!): Plastic containers that held hazardous materials (motor oil, anti-freeze, pesticides), polystyrene/Styrofoam, plastic bags, film and shrink wrap, and home health medical supplies should never be placed in the recycling bin. Check to see what is accepted for recycling at the County’s Shady Grove Processing Facility and Transfer Station.
  • In-depth recycling guidelines can be found on the Montgomery County DEP website.
  • Residents that place non-acceptable materials in their blue bin may receive an “Oops” tag. This is a reminder that they’ve placed an unacceptable item in their recycling bin.


Workers sorting recyclable material at the Recycling Center


Ultimately, the efficacy of our local and global recycling systems will not be determined by individual action. An individual commitment to proper recycling must be paired with a societal transition away from rapid urbanization and the consumeristic culture that caused the waste management crisis.

2 comments on "Wishcycling"

  1. Amy Maron says:

    Great post overall. Thanks for your work, Fisher. However, at the tour of the MRF for members of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, DEP officials stated that we should replace the caps onto the plastic bottles, so you may need to clarify this statement. It helps tremendously if people can just put the cap back on!

    1. DEP Staff says:

      Hi, thanks for your kind words. We ask residents to remove the caps from bottles and add them separately to recycling containers. For more information, please visit our website: https://www2.montgomerycountymd.gov/DepHowDoI/material.aspx?tag=plastics&material_key=64.

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