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Be careful what you wishcycle in your recycling bin

  • 4/20/2017 1:39:00 PM
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The road to the recycling center is paved with good intentions. Like basketballs, bubble wrap and Styrofoam.

We all want to do the right thing. We’re trying to keep our junk out of landfills – so into the recycling bin it goes. But not everything is recyclable – even if it has the famous recycling logo on it.

Iowa recycling centers show the oddest non-recyclables they've had come to their recycling centers [Image: old cell phone, Billy Ray Cyrus cassette tape, old vacuum, ICEE table lamp] | Iowa DNR“That’s what we call ‘wishcycling,’” says Leslie Goldsmith with the DNR.  “We’re trying to recycle things we wish could be recycled in our bins, but they can’t. That ultimately ends up causing major headaches at recycling centers.”

When the non-recyclable items –toys, clothes and plastic bags are common culprits – make their way into the recycling stream, it clogs up the process, both figuratively and literally.

“Those items that really can’t be recycled can end up clogging machinery, or really slowing down the process of sorting out recyclables by staff,” Goldsmith says. “That extra time and those extra steps add cost to the process, which ends up coming back to residents.”

Mary Wittry of the Carroll County Solid Waste Management Commission knows firsthand. The county’s recycling center sees its fair share of plastic food containers, toys, furnace filters, dishes and Styrofoam. Then there was one time a coffee can came through with $1,000 under the lid.

“All these materials must be sorted out. It depends on the conditions of the items whether they are donated to a second-hand store or taken to the landfill,” Wittry says.

Antique cell phones, an old Billy Ray Cyrus tape and an ICEE lamp are some of the more unique non-recyclables that have come down the line at the Waste Commission of Scott County’s recycling center.

“These recyclers have good intentions, but they often don’t realize that when something non-recyclable comes through our facility it slows the entire recycling process down. Our staff has to stop the line, remove the item, then place it in the trash,” says Kathy Morris, the commission’s director. “Efficiency is critical in a recycling facility and slowing down or stopping to remove non-recyclable items can really impact recycling operations. Recyclers can help us avoid these problems if they know what goes where.”

When in doubt, look it up. Most curbside recyclers offer stickers or lists on their website as to what they will and will not accept. If you’re dropping off items at a transfer station or other satellite location, look for posted signs.

“Consider too if the item is truly ready for the trash, or if it could be donated. There are also different specialty recycling programs out there – like many grocery and retail stores offer dropoff locations for recycling plastic bags,” Goldsmith says. “And don’t forget to reduce and reuse to help cut down on waste in the first place.”

Learn more about recycling in Iowa at or check out our Earth Day Every Day and In Your Own Backyard boards on Pinterest.

Don't go wishcycling - be sure what you put in the bin is safe to recycle [Image: workers sorting items on a conveyor belt at a recycling center] | Iowa DNR