Reduce, reuse, recycle — three simple words taught to us at an early age to create a cleaner Earth. But for many of us, debating whether a container is recyclable and determining which bin to put it in can leave us with questions and uncertainty. While recycling is vital for both a healthier planet and future generations, “wishful recycling,” or tossing an item in the recycling bin in the hopes it ends up being recyclable, can contaminate the rest of the collection and add to the pileup of landfills.
To avoid this contamination, the phrase, “When in doubt, throw it out,” has become a popular motto to eliminate wishful recycling.
“We have become wasteful as a society, but the more people understand, the more they’ll push toward a change in product development and collection of resources. Doing your small part to make the best decisions for the products you purchase, donate and manage can have a world of impact,” said Nick Carlson, vice president of donated goods operations at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids.
As people seek to better understand how to avoid wishful recycling, tending to the appropriate disposal of clothing, textiles and household items is not always discussed as frequently. Each year, the average person throws away 50 pounds of clothing, making up about 10% of our waste stream, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Because Carlson says there are not as many available recycle markets for these products, the best processes for household items, textiles and clothing are often either reusing or downcycling.
While Goodwill has different methods for reusing and downcycling products, Carlson says 60% of its waste results from people dropping off items that are dilapidated or not accepted. “We don’t accept mattresses as donations at all, but we receive approximately six mattresses every single night when no one’s around just so people can get rid of their materials,” Carlson said. “That hurts Goodwill because we don’t have the capacity to recycle those materials and they add to waste cost, which takes away from our mission to help get people into long-term competitive employment.”
Not only is understanding what you’re donating and the quality of those items beneficial for the community, but Carlson adds buying used products can save the natural resources it takes to develop a new product. “If you’re purchasing something that’s used, you increase the life of that product,” Carlson said. “As a result, it helps reduce the production of brand new products. Reducing our own individual impact on waste through reusing and recycling couldn’t be more important for our continuous existence.”