Recycling innovator TerraCycle has made its mark on the consumer package goods sector in recent years. Its (literal) mark, a small green infinity symbol, appears on the back of toothpaste and hair color tubes, BuzzBallz plastic drink containers, and packs of BIC pens. Dozens of corporations pay for the Trenton company to recycle their packaging, packaging that would otherwise contribute to what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the world’s trash crisis.”
TerraCycle CEO and founder Tom Szaky told Vox in 2021 that his company collects 217 tons of waste per month through its mail-in programs nationwide. The company takes in hard-to-recycle post-consumer plastic waste, shreds it up, melts it down, and pelletizes it to be transformed into other plastic products.
Alongside the company’s recycling program is a sizeable and creative upcycling program, giving new life to yesteryear’s things, like old Eastern Mountain Sports store banners and vintage U.S. Postal Service bags.
The USPS bags are made of, depending on how old they are, cotton or nylon, and they’re laden with metal grommets and leather clasps. TerraCycle Global Vice President of Design and Engineering Tiffany Threadgould explained that because fabric must be processed with like fabric and because obstructions like the metal grommets and leather clasps could break fabric processing equipment, recycling USPS bags would be challenging and expensive. The postal service had been hanging on to some of them unsure of a next step for more than 50 years.
Today, the bags have a second life as tablet cases, coin pouches, and totes. TerraCycle sells them on its TC Made e-commerce site.
EMS contacted TerraCycle looking for ways to recycle old vinyl and canvas store banners. Clever design and ingenuity turned the banners into dopp kits perfect for EMS’s target consumer, hikers and outdoorsy travelers. Fifteen or so large banners became several hundred dopp kits, also for sale on TC Made.
If not for these partnerships, these products would have likely ended up in landfills.
With its upcycling projects, TerraCycle is “trying to find a value in the materials that exist and continue their life,” Threadgould said. “If it’s a material that’s made and is really durable, we don’t need to just trash it. It could come back in another life as something else.
“My favorite part of upcycling is the ‘aha!’ moment when you discover what the object used to be,” she said. “For example, when people sit at our bowling alley conference table in the office, it looks just like a large, wooden conference table. But then they notice the bowling marks on the table, like the bowling approach dots and arrows on the table and discover the original life of the item.”
Many of TerraCycle’s upcycling projects are too small to go to retail but are instead distributed at partner companies internally, like tote bags made of old billboards for Verizon. Molson Coors partnered with TerraCycle to turn old billboards into beer coolers (complete with an “I Used to Be a Billboard” badge on the front) which were given out with certain purchases as part of its Every One Can recycling initiative. Colgate partnered with TerraCycle to make upcycled backpacks and pencil cases out of oral care waste, and the school supplies were gifted to schools across the country.
While the past lives of some of TerraCycle’s products are obvious, one look at the new picnic tables in Mercer County Parks and Trenton Thunder Stadium wouldn’t tell you the tables used to be Taco Bell sauce packets, much less hundreds of thousands of them. The plastic waste pelletized and melted into one of the podiums at the 2020 Japan Olympics, in partnership with Proctor & Gamble, wasn’t obvious, either.
Threadgould said that one of her favorite products TerraCycle has alchemized from trash to treasure is a bracelet that supports the removal of plastic from waterways in Thailand. Six plastic beads signify the six tons of plastic diverted from Thailand’s waterways each week from trash traps TerraCycle installed outside of Bangkok; and two metal beads flanking those six signify the trash traps.
For more homegrown upcycling, TerraCycle is inviting local artists to set up shop in its Trenton headquarters as part of its creative residency program. “Artists are often looking for inexpensive space to work. We have space dedicated for them to work and in exchange for working in our office they get that space to also do their own body of work,” Threadgould said.
Previous iterations of the program have accepted just one artist at a time, but TerraCycle is actively seeking six this time.
“We always need improvements made to our space and it’s a way to engage the community in doing that,” she said. “We plan to keep this program around indefinitely.”