Beyond the Mantra: Redefining Recycling Practices for a Sustainable Future

A hallmark of growing up is walking around repeating phrases you learned in school or heard through the grapevine. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was one of those popular phrases in first grade for me. This alliterative phrase flipped a switch in my mind, and while I did not understand the complexities of this sustainable mantra at the time, I did understand that recycling was important. The idea of recycling all the waste we produce is nice, but I’ve learned since those early days that “aspirational recycling” does more harm than good.

Aspirational recycling is otherwise known as ‘wish-cycling.’ This is when you feel that something should be recycled, so you put it in the recycling bin under the assumption that someone will sort through it. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. More often than not, if you place something in the recycling bin that cannot be recycled, everything in that bin will be sent to the landfill, instead. This is why it is crucial to understand the recycling rules and be intentional in your recycling habits.

Recycling contamination is an ever-growing problem as people put the wrong items into the recycling bin or do not adequately clean out the residue from the recyclable item. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, the average amount per load of recycling not deemed recyclable by a city or municipality increased from 7 to 25 percent in the last decade. This problem can be resolved through increased education about the recycling rules in each city and mindful practices to ensure you are doing your part in the sustainability efforts around your community.

Here are some action steps you can take to reduce aspirational recycling:

  1. Learn the recycling rules for the city you live in: The City of Winston Salem has many resources to help ensure you recycle correctly. The Winston Salem Journal released an updated and very detailed recycling schedule, and the city also has an app called WS Collects that shows the recycling and trash schedule for your street address.
  2. Avoid contamination by washing food debris from recyclables: This step only takes an extra thirty seconds and can save many items from being thrown into a landfill.
  3. Be mindful of your consumption habits: Avoid buying items you know cannot be recycled such as styrofoam egg cartons. Your dollar holds a lot of power as a consumer, so shop wisely!
  4. “When in doubt, throw it out”: It is better to discard something you are questioning rather than contaminate a pile of perfectly good recyclables.

First graders everywhere will continue to chant, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but it is up to us to ensure we take the proper measures to be responsible recyclers.