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Are you “wish-cycling?” The most common recycling mistakes

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MILWAUKEE — Every year, the City of Milwaukee recycles 50 million pounds of materials. People mean well when they choose to recycle, but mistakes are made. Some of those mistakes are obvious and some of them aren't. However, some of those mistakes can be downright dangerous.


Once you leave your recycling on the curb, it ends up in a massive pile at Milwaukee's Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

The pile of materials is so high, it only makes sense that some stowaways are hiding inside and they can be harmful.

"Propane tanks — those are never ever recyclable in your recycling cart. They can cause serious injury to our employees as well as the equipment," warned Analiese Smith, the recycling assistant for the City of Milwaukee.


A "tangler" is any material that can get wrapped up in the equipment.

The most common offenders employees at MRF find are what they call "tanglers."

"Anything that can get wrapped around the equipment. That includes things like garden hoses and extension cords and bungee cords," explained Smith.

From the massive pile of paper and plastics, recycled materials are loaded onto conveyor belts and pass through the pre-sort room. There employees pull off large materials that can be recycled.

"They're pulling off large, bulky, rigid plastics like laundry baskets -- things that can be recycled -- laundry baskets, five-gallon buckets," Smith said.

From there, the conveyor belts carry recyclables through more rounds of sorters who pull off items by type. After that, machines do the sorting -- some of it by laser.


It's a lot of work to protect the integrity of the recycling process. While some recycling mistakes seem obvious, there are others that are not.

Smith says most people have the basics of recycling down: paper, glass and plastic.

"A lot of your milk jugs, a lot of your detergent bottles, shampoo bottles," Smith listed.

You can also recycle magazines, prescription pill bottles and juice boxes.

However, you cannot recycling Styrofoam cartons, Ziploc bags, plastic cutlery or straws.

When it comes to recycling, people have good intentions, but still make mistakes. It's what recycling insiders call, "wish-cycling."

FOX6 Contact 6 reporter Jenna Sachs admitted she's guilty of making recycling mistakes.

"When I send out my recycling, I have it tied up tight, in a bag. But you're telling me I shouldn't do that," Sachs said.


Contact 6's Jenna Sachs talks about recycling mistakes with Milwaukee Recycling Assistant Analiese Smith.

"Yeah, we prefer items be lose in the cart," Smith explained.

Another example of "wish-cycling" is a greasy pizza box. If the grease stain on the box is smaller than your hand, you can recycle it. If it's larger, it needs to go in the trash.

Also, you cannot recycle soda cups or paper coffee cups because of the waxy paper material.

Still, many communities have different rules about recycling, which can make things confusing -- so check with your hometown recycling center to learn more about their exact guidelines.

For broad recycling rules across Wisconsin, go to Recycle More Wisconsin.


  • Metal Maniac

    Earlier this year I had a roommate who was a complete nut job about recycling. She would dig through the garbage for recyclables and then try to figure out who messed up. I tried to explain to her how greasy pizza boxes weren’t recyclable and she didn’t buy it. A long time ago i took the time to figure out what needs to be recycled and what should be avoided. It can cost not only money but also a ton of potential paper if you do not recycle the right things. I think they should have a short list of common things people should NEVER recycle on those garbage cans the city sells to the residents.

    I’ve also hear not to recycle plastic grocery bags (some grocery stores allow you to recycle them there). Also small plastic lids are not recyclable (like a Starbucks lid or a milk jug cap). Plastic needs to be at least 3″ to be recyclable.

  • Sarah Lindsay

    Thank you for addressing these common recycling mistakes and helping your readers understand why it’s important to recycle right. We’d like to point out that while many types of flexible plastic packaging, including sealable food storage bags (e.g. Ziploc® bags), can be recycled, they require a separate stream and should be kept out of your curbside bin. Food storage bags – along with other types of flexible plastic packaging – can be recycled at more than 18,000 grocery stores around the country. Just look for a bin near the entrance of your local store. These programs collect a variety of flexible plastic packages, including bags from produce, shopping and dry cleaning; shipping pillows and bubble wrap; wraps from napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue, diapers, and beverage cases; and food storage bags (with or without zippers) provided they are clean and dry. Learn more at PlasticFilmRecycling.org.

    Shari Jackson
    Director, Flexible Film Recycling Group
    American Chemistry Council

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