• ‘Wishcycling’ is contaminating the recycling system.
  • Our well-intentioned acts of recycling may actually be slowing the move to a circular economy.
  • More than half of people in the US believe that “most types of items” can be recycled.
  • Every year, staggering amounts of recyclable waste are exported by wealthy countries to the developing world.
  • The World Economic Forum is backing initiatives that will help create a circular economy.

We might think we are helping the environment by recycling, but we may inadvertently be doing more harm than good.

In fact, our good intentions to recycle may be reinforcing the problem of waste instead of solving it, as the act of wishcycling slowly limits the creation of the circular economy.

What is wishcycling?

Wishcycling is the well-intentioned but unfounded belief that something is recyclable when it is not.

Last year, it was submitted as a word to Collins English Dictionary and defined as: “the practice of putting something in a recycling bin without being certain that it is actually recyclable”.

Our small acts of wishcycling are complicating the sorting process for centres and contaminating the recycling system.

We may think we’re doing a good job with our recycling habits, but every year staggering amounts of recyclable waste are exported by wealthy countries to the developing world. Currently, it is cheaper to export waste than develop local recycling infrastructures.

Wishcycling versus upcycling

It seems there are many of us recyclers simply crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. A study from Washington-based Pew Research Centre found 59% of Americans believe “most types of items” can be recycled and their miscellaneous recyclables are efficiently sorted. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Recycling the correct materials, however, can accelerate the circular economy through upcycling. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, recently revealed ways to produce high-value products, such as carbon nanotubes (used to design lightweight parts for aerospace) and clean liquid fuel, from used plastic. The process can also upcycle agricultural and organic waste.

Every year, vast quantities of recyclable waste are exported by wealthy countries to the developing world.
Every year, vast quantities of recyclable waste are exported by wealthy countries to the developing world.
Image: Our World in Data

How can we end wishcycling?

According to Recycle Nation, there are a few items commonly wishcycled that should never be found in your recycling bin:

  • Plastic wrap
  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Plastic bubble wrap mailers
  • Pizza boxes
  • Wax-coated boxes from frozen foods
  • Pots and pans
  • Ink cartridges
  • Broken eyeglasses
  • Tupperware
  • Styrofoam
  • Small plastic lids.

To avoid wishcycling, recycling company RoadRunner recommends the following ‘dos and don’ts’:

Do recycle

  • Plastics with “chasing arrows”
  • Clean cardboard and mixed paper products
  • Rinsed and dried aluminium and glass containers.


  • Compost your food waste
  • Sort your recyclable materials to ensure they remain clean, uncontaminated and valuable.

Do NOT recycle

  • Paper and foam coffee cups
  • Plastic shopping bags
  • Greasy pizza boxes
  • Plastic utensils and straws
  • Coffee pods (“K-Cups”)
  • All Styrofoam, films and plastic pieces smaller than a credit card
  • Containers with food and drink residue.

Helping the circular economy become a reality

The World Economic Forum is helping the circular economy become a reality by harnessing the potential of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technology, innovation and smart policy. Through a global partnership known as Scale360°, governments, businesses, civil society and entrepreneurs worldwide aim to accelerate the adoption of 4IR solutions for the circular economy in electronics, fashion, food and plastics.

The partnership is building on the work of the Forum’s report Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Circular Economy, which looks into the 4IR technologies being used today and how we can better manage our resources in the future.