CLOSING ENTRY: Closing the loop

Tom Szaky//April 10, 2023//


CLOSING ENTRY: Closing the loop

Tom Szaky//April 10, 2023//

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The conversation around recycling is like a tug of war.

On one side, the makers and users of plastic – oil and gas companies – and the brands that sell plastic products tout recycling as a solution for the waste crisis. On another, we have activists declaring that recycling is fundamentally broken. “Plastic recycling doesn’t work and never will,” says The Atlantic. “Plastic recycling is a dead-end,” echoes Greenpeace. That leaves many hanging on in the middle, utterly confused, and with misconceptions about recycling. Let’s examine some of those misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Most things are “unrecyclable”: You can only put certain things in your recycling bin. Aluminum cans, paper, clean cardboard, plastics Nos. 1 and 2, glass jars, etc., depending on where you live. That means everything else is unrecyclable, right?

Not exactly. Technically, almost everything can be recycled. But whether or not your local recycling service will accept an item for recycling depends on if they can make a profit from it. Aluminum cans are very profitable to recycle while a mascara wand costs more to collect and recycle than the resulting materials are worth.

Misconception 2: Recycling companies are the problem: Recycling companies, like any for-profit company, are in business to make money for their shareholders. Think of them like “urban mining companies,” looking to extract material that is profitable from our waste stream (instead of a mine). They do not exist to solve the waste crisis.

A good parallel is a junk hauler. When you call one to clear out your house, they might be able to buy some items from you – like a nice piano or antique dresser – but you’ll have to pay them to take everything else away.

Misconception 3: Recycling doesn’t work: The recycling business model is not broken. It works very well when the business equation is favorable, as it often is for paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and some plastics. But, as we’ve seen, that’s not the case for many items that become waste. And what’s accepted for recycling will vary from location to location, depending on factors such as community size and distance to end-markets for materials (all vectors that affect a recycler’s profitability).

That’s why recycling is not a silver bullet solution to the waste crisis. However, it’s still an incredibly important part of moving toward a circular economy. In addition to the environmental benefits (recycling reduces the need to extract virgin materials from the planet and prevents trash from being landfilled or littered), it also allows valuable material to be reused in new production.

The only silver bullet solution to the waste crisis is for all of us to buy less and to move from purchasing durable, reusable items instead of disposable ones.

Misconception 4: We shouldn’t recycle: Is recycling even worth it? Absolutely. You can be confident that your local recycling company is recycling items it can make a profit on (which are typically the specific items it tells you to put in your recycling bin). These items make up a good percentage of our trash and keeping them out of landfills is a big win for the planet.

There are also solutions for hard-to-recycle items. At TerraCycle, we can accept traditionally hard-to-recycle items (like mascara wands, disposable razors and cigarette butts) because we partner with brands, retailers and other stakeholders to fund the recycling process.

Misconception 5: Recycling can’t get better: Recycling can become much more effective, but it will take action from all actors: consumers, brands, retailers, governments, activists.

Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of Trenton-based TerraCycle.
Recycling can become much more effective, but it will take action from all actors: consumers, brands, retailers, governments, activists,” writes Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Trenton-based TerraCycle. – TERRACYCLE

Our system currently operates as an open loop, as the main actors are generally not required to take circular action. Manufacturers don’t have to make their products and packaging easy to recycle or include recycled content in production. Retailers can sell anything they want, including lots of very hard-to-recycle products. The consumer that buys a product has no legal obligation to recycle it (if it’s even recyclable), and even if they do put something in a recycling bin, the recycling company isn’t legally required to recycle it either. All that drives each actor is cost and convenience.

We can address this through voluntary and mandatory action on the part of each actor.

Consumers: We as consumers ultimately need to buy less and buy responsibly. But it’s hard, impossible for some, to create no trash. We must recycle as much as we can locally and through other methods when possible. Our responsibility is to increase the volume of recycling (by choosing recycling rather than the landfill) and to ensure quality of that volume by only putting accepted items in our recycling bins.

This can all be encouraged through recycling education and by not amplifying misconceptions about recycling. Legislation could also be considered. Isn’t it interesting that we get fined for littering, but not for sending trash to landfills? In some countries, like Germany, fines are imposed for improper recycling.

Brands: Many brands have been taking voluntary action of some sort to address hard-to-recycle waste, such as by improving the accuracy of labeling about recyclability, making their products or packaging locally recyclable, or creating recycling programs through third parties like TerraCycle. However, we can see from initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment that while important, voluntary action isn’t driving enough action. Ultimately, we need legislation to make these choices mandatory.

Legislation has been slow but is ramping up fast around the world. California recently passed Senate Bill 343, which calls for “truth in recycling” by regulating the word “recyclable” and the chasing arrows symbol on packaging. In many countries, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which require producers to contribute to the costs associated with recycling the packaging they put on the market, are being introduced or signed into law. In some areas, producers are also being required to include a certain percentage of recycled content in new products.

Consumers can encourage voluntary progress by demanding action from our preferred brands. We can accelerate mandatory progress by contacting our legislators.

Retailers: Retailers can voluntarily decide to purchase products from brands taking the voluntary actions described above. They can also choose to offer more recycling solutions, as Walmart has done with its Community Recycling Hub, a partnership with TerraCycle.

Some U.S. states and cities as well as countries around the globe do mandate that retailers offer in-store recycling of items like plastic bags. Otherwise, retailers don’t have to take any responsibility for the products they offer to consumers.

All of these efforts, voluntary and mandatory, will help recyclers recycle more. Each actor is a fundamental dependency; they all have to play together.

The actors also need to nurture innovators in the sustainable waste management space. Compared to industries like consumer packaged goods and electronics, there’s very little innovation here. Startups like Recyclops, Litterati, Loop, and Algramo must be supported so we can move beyond our current inadequate systems.

Recycling is important now and will continue to be, even as we all work to reduce our consumption. We can recognize how it benefits society while also acknowledging the limitations and nurturing the changes and innovation that will take us beyond recycling.

Tom Szaky is CEO of Trenton-based TerraCycle.