How to keep recycling from turning into 'wishcycling'

  • The impact of recycling is being undercut by materials not being sorted properly, which drives up the cost to process them and makes the contents useless.
  • Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, called the issue "wishcycling," and it makes recycling loads impossible to process and resell.


When people toss paper, glass or plastic in the correct recycling bin, they're confident in doing their part to save the planet.

However, experts say the problem is a lot of the wrong materials are ending up in the recycling bin – thus driving up the cost to process the materials and often making the contents useless.

The problem is part of what Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, called "wishcycling," in an interview with CNBC's "On the Money" recently. Her national nonprofit organization connects funding from over 40 corporate partners to help "transform recycling for good in cities and towns across America."

"People want to do the right thing," Harrison said. "They want the environmental impact of strong recycling. But in order to get the rewards that we're all going for we have to put the right things in the bin."

Greasy pizza boxes and plastic bags are among the most common items that can get stuck in sorting machines, she explained. They can contaminate an entire recycling load, making it impossible to process and resell.

Vice president of recycling Brent Hildebrand walks through bundles of recyclables at Alpine Waste & Recycling on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Alpine is making efforts to clean up their paper recycling stream by adding more employees to the production line in order to ensure contaminants are limited such as separating brown paper from white. 
AAron Ontiveroz | Denver Post | Getty Images
Vice president of recycling Brent Hildebrand walks through bundles of recyclables at Alpine Waste & Recycling on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Alpine is making efforts to clean up their paper recycling stream by adding more employees to the production line in order to ensure contaminants are limited such as separating brown paper from white. 

Saying no to 'junky loads'

The Recycling Partnership has more than 40 funding partners, including some of the largest global companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Target, Proctor & Gamble, ExxonMobil, Amazon, International Paper and Starbucks.

"Part of the reason why our organization was founded was to accept donations from companies to put to work in local government to build long standing solutions, because we know it's a big challenge for them to handle on their own," the CEO told CNBC.

In 2016, China was the destination for two-thirds of the world's plastic waste. But last year the country stopped buying recycled materials, because so much that arrived was contaminated.

"It's important to know why China stopped buying our stuff. Truth is we were sending them junky loads, we got very comfortable with sending them loads that were not pure recyclables," Harrison said.

"And now that we're shifting our markets to the domestic market, we are cleaning them up and that takes money," she said.

Harrison added: "Municipalities have never made serious money off of recyclables. They might have gotten some money back to offset the cost of collection, but this has been a cost for communities for years and they do it as a public service just like they supply clean water, good roads. This is part of what makes a healthy town."

U.S. trash haulers and cities can't make money selling recyclables, suggesting the system might be broken. Harrison said it still works, but is in need of modernization.

"This is a shift of the entire industry, but it's not an indicator that the system is broken," she said. "It's that it needs help to be healthy and robust for years to come."

Over the last four years, the Recycling Partnership says it has reached 47 million households in 961 communities to "increase access to recycling, increase capture of and quality of recyclables, decreasing contamination."

Harrison said one of the biggest things people can do to recycle better is "make sure that none of it is bagged. That's one of the most common things we see from consumers. They want to keep it nice and clean and tidy so they put recyclables in a bag and drop the entire bag into the recycling bin."

But since thin plastic bags can gum up processing machines, "that's a challenge for MRFs (Materials Recycling Facilities)," Harrison told CNBC. And since China is no longer buying U.S. recycling, Harrison acknowledged the model needs to change.

"I think there will be a change, (and) haulers, MRFs, processors, all these companies need to be profitable. This is not a goodwill exercise for them."

Harrison said the U.S. recycling model is "different than in other countries, it's at the expense of the local government to make (it) happen."

"20,000 local governments are each making their own decisions on how to handle recycling," Harrison explained. "They don't always know where to start, that's why they look to us as a national nonprofit to bring them expertise, financial help and really tools that can help bridge this gap that we're currently facing in recycling."


On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.