Recycling... or Wishcycling?

Are you guilty of wishcycling?


We’ve all done it, and some of us even do it daily. We get our morning cup of takeaway coffee and think we’re doing the right thing by throwing the cup into the recycling. The problem is that cup is almost certainly not recyclable. Our lack of knowledge on what will actually end up being recycled is a growing issue and sadly we are falling into the trap of ‘wishcycling’ – when we hope the item we have just tossed will live on in another form.


Most of us are trying our best by the planet but as consumers (and isn’t that an apt term) we’re bombarded every day by information that may or may not be correct, all with the goal of selling us more stuff. We should continue to recycle, as some things are readily recycled, such as aluminium. But recycling is not the solution to our single-use plastic addiction.


Globally, only 9% of plastic worldwide actually gets recycled into something else. In New Zealand, we lack the infrastructure to process the incredible amount of waste we produce but also, a great deal of what we use isn’t actually recyclable. To go back to the coffee cup, what seems like paper is in fact lined with plastic (to make it waterproof). This double layering structure prevents recycling so every takeaway coffee cup you have ever used is still around, crumpled up and slowly breaking up into microplastics in some landfill somewhere – or possibly the ocean. This is true of so many things people think are recyclable, like wrapping paper, magazines and food packaging.


When it comes to kerbside recycling, what you might not know is that if one person contaminates their recycling bin, it can sometimes lead to the entire council load being sent to landfill instead. Unfortunately some people – either unaware (and who can blame them, it’s confusing) or who simply don’t care – put a whole range of stuff in their recycling bins and I’m talking anything from car batteries to dead cats! I’m sure councils across the country have seen it all.


I don’t mean to discourage anyone, it’s crucial that we keep fighting the good fight and plough on with our recycling because every person can make a difference. But if you want to make an even bigger impact and help clean up our environment, start eliminating single-use plastics from your life from today.


I don’t just mean to stop using plastic bags. This goes well beyond that, and in fact some of the plastic bag alternatives have a much higher environmental footprint.


We can all stop buying products wrapped in plastic, fruit being a good example. Apples, bananas, avocados – you name it – they all come ready made with a protective wrap (skin), while those with delicious skins like potatoes just need a quick wash.

If your local supermarket doesn’t have a plastic-free vege department, stop at the local veggie store instead. Not only are you supporting local producers (lower carbon footprint) but the produce tends to be fresher and mostly plastic-free. If you do come across a veggie like celery suffocating in plastic wrap, then maybe take a personal stance and don’t buy celery that week because of its packaging.


Consumers need to take some responsibility for what we buy and understand that adding an extra 20 minutes to shop somewhere else, or going without bananas this week, isn’t so bad if it ends up saving a turtle from death by plastic when it mistakes plastic wrap in the ocean for a delicious jellyfish. Its an oft-stated fact that 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. People tend to point the finger at developing countries, based on the idea that so much of this waste comes from these countries. But of course, much of this waste is from countries like New Zealand, the USA and Australia as we’re simply shipping our waste offshore for them to deal with.


There are so many areas in our lives where we can eliminate single-use plastics. Toss out the plastic wrap and try reusable wax wraps – they’re very popular right now and come in different sizes and funky patterns. Once you buy a few you will see just how convenient they actually are and you won’t miss using plastic wrap.

Washable bin liners are trending too – throw them in the wash when they’re dirty and keep the extra change in your pockets, instead of constantly buying plastic bin bags. Or, you know... just wash your bin.


We simply must stop putting convenience before the planet. We are all busy but simply choosing not to buy something really will make a difference.

As consumers we can use our voices to refuse single-use plastics and, if we all take this step, it sends a clear message to manufacturers that we won’t put up with wasteful and unnecessary plastic packaging. There are 4.8 million of us, so if we all play a small part in removing single-use plastics from our lives, together that’s quite a message!


Recycling probably comprises part of the answer in the future but right now, removing single-use items from our lives where possible will have the biggest impact. We need to put pressure on brands to change their ways but until brands make those changes, we should take more responsibility for what we’re buying. The plastic-era took off so fast that no one could have predicted the damage it would cause. So now, as individuals, it’s time to lessen our load on the planet.


And if you’re still wondering why that coffee cup can’t be recycled, it’s lined with a fine film to make it liquid-proof. So why not take the first step in being free from single-use plastics and try a reusable cup for your morning coffee tomorrow!

Brianne West

New Zealand entrepreneur and founder of Ethique – the world’s first full range, zero-waste beauty brand. Cited as a ‘Global Thinker’ by Foreign Policy magazine in 2016 for “making beauty eco-friendly”. Named 2019 NZ EY 'Young Entrepreneur of the Year'.

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