What is wishcycling?

As more communities are offering recycling programs, people are finding that it’s complicated. While many items are recyclable, not every facility can recycle them. There’s no universal rule about what to put in your bins. Unfortunately, even people who want to recycle may end up wishcycling. That is, they put things in the recycling bin that don’t belong there.

The World Economic Forum lists some items that cause problems for most recyclers. These include plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam, and coffee pods. Any containers with food residue are problematic, as are small plastic items such as loose caps.

So what’s the problem? The whole point of recycling is to make some new use from the waste. To do that, recyclers need to be able to sort glass from aluminum, paper, and various types of plastic. Minneapolis, where I live, is far from the coasts, so shipping recyclables overseas isn’t feasible. But according to the city of Minneapolis, only 3% of our solid waste ends up in a landfill. Garbage goes to a waste-to-energy plant in downtown Minneapolis, organics and yard waste go in separate streams for composting, and recyclables are sold for reuse.

Recycling is delivered to Eureka Recycling in Northeast Minneapolis. Your recycling is sorted into about 15 categories. From there, 76% of your recyclables are made into new products right here in Minnesota, 91% stay in the Midwest, and 100% stay in North America.—”Does my recycling make a difference? Yes, it does!” City of Minneapolis, 2024.

Recycling aluminum is a relatively low-cost, low-energy alternative to costly mining and refining of bauxite. But the aluminum has to be clean. A little food residue could contaminate a whole load, making it less valuable.

Plastics aren’t all equally marketable. In Minneapolis, only plastics #1, #2, and #5 that aren’t black have strong markets for recycling; anything else should go into the garbage. Loose plastic caps are small enough to fall through the sorting equipment and contaminate the crushed glass. If the cap is made of recyclable plastic, put it back on the (clean) bottle.

Alternatives to wishcycling

Orange cat reading the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Fenris staying on top of the local news. Recycling is local, so it helps to read the local paper to learn what’s going on in your community. And you can recycle the paper afterwards. Photo: Rachel Detwiler

In addition to learning what and how to recycle, you can use other sustainable alternatives to wishcycling. These include finding other uses for things instead of recycling. You can also reexamine your shopping habits.


Food waste and some related items are compostable. My father composted our kitchen- and yard waste in his garden for many years. In one place where we lived, he’d give our corn stalks to a friend to feed to his burros. The friend then gave us the manure to add to our compost heap, which fertilized next year’s corn crop.

Where I live now, we have commercial composting. Because the processing temperatures are higher, we can compost bones, paper egg cartons, pizza boxes, tea bags, and wooden items in addition to food scraps. The city of Minneapolis has issued refrigerator magnets listing what’s compostable and what’s not. That keeps the instructions handy and easy to follow.


Reuse is a great way to limit the volume of waste that needs recycling. A store in my neighborhood, Vinaigrette, gives a 10% discount on new purchases in exchange for their empty bottles. That’s a much better deal than the 10-cent deposit on soda bottles I remember from my younger days.

I especially like the substitutes for plastic produce bags, which are notoriously hard to recycle. Some stores, such as Trader Joe’s, provide compostable bags. They’re just the right size for collecting kitchen compost. Another option is reusable mesh bags. They keep the produce fresh, and they’re easy to wash for the next use.

Reusable shopping bags are also helpful. I have several compact shopping bags which I keep in my purse. They hold a lot, are comfortable to carry, and wash and dry easily. They also keep the paper- and plastic shopping bags from accumulating. As a pet owner, I do use some plastic shopping bags. And paper bags find new uses, too, mostly to accumulate other recyclables before I take them out to the alley. They’re also good for taking donations to the food bank.

Minneapolis has several independent bookstores that buy and sell used books. Libraries take donations of used books. We also have numerous Little Free Libraries where you can donate or take books to read.

Similarly, my neighborhood has several antique stores that buy and sell used furniture and household decorations. If you find something you like, you’ll pay a lot less for better quality than you could get at most furniture stores. There are also consignment shops that buy and sell used clothing.


In the last 10 years or so I’ve become a fan of upcycling. Some of the best examples I’ve seen are from artists who find new uses for old objects. One of my favorites is Al Wadzinski, a Native American artist who makes wonderful sculptures from found objects. The first impression is the overall sculpture, but then you start to figure out what it’s made of. A shoe might become the body of a seahorse, or a purse the maw of a fish. The imagination and humor of the artist are evident in every piece.

Thoughtful purchasing

While we all love a bargain, that may not always be the best way to care for the planet—or the people on it. For example, “fast fashion” is cheaply made, often for exploitive wages and under dangerous conditions. It also doesn’t last very long, so what you buy now will probably find its way to a landfill in a year or two. Some companies are taking a different approach, obtaining their yarns from sources meeting Oeco-Tex Standard 100. They pay good wages and follow good labor practices. Meeting higher standards means their products cost considerably more than fast fashion. They also last much longer, however, so over their usable life they may well cost less. You end up buying less and using it longer.


Thoughtful purchasing goes hand-in-hand with repair. Even high-quality items eventually show wear and tear, but they’re worth repairing. In the mid‑1970s I inherited a solid mahogany dining table and a small sofa from my grandmother. Both have moved with me to Berkeley, Seattle, Oakland, Toronto, Chicago (twice), and Minneapolis (twice). Along the way, I’ve had the table refinished twice and the sofa reupholstered three times. Although I probably could have bought a new sofa for less than what I paid for the reupholstering, it wouldn’t have had the solid wood framing or the down cushions—or my grandmother’s classic elegance.

Similarly, a lamp store in my neighborhood both sells and repairs lamps. Years ago I bought a pair of solid bronze lamps there that served well for a long time. Then I adopted two kittens. Sadly, the lamps were no match for Maren, who loved to climb them. At some point they’d topple under her unbalanced weight and crash to the floor. Once I was sure she’d outgrown that habit, I took them in for repair. Now they’re like new again.