Thursday, July 22, 2010

My issues with TerraCycle

Last year, at the Net Impact forum, I learned about a company called TerraCycle, whose motto is "Outsmart waste." Tom Szaky, the founder of the company, gave a lively and engaging talk about what his company is about. Here's what the website says:

TerraCycle makes affordable, eco-friendly products from a wide range of different non-recyclable waste materials. With over 50 products available at major retailers like Walmart, Target, The Home Depot, OfficeMax, Petco and Whole Foods Market, TerraCycle is one of the fastest growing eco-friendly manufacturers in the world. Our hope is to eliminate the idea of waste by finding innovative, unique uses for materials others deem garbage.

Founded in 2001 by a 19 year old Princeton University freshman named Tom Szaky, TerraCycle started as an organic fertilizer company and has grown into a multi-category, eco-friendly powerhouse. Tom’s dream was to find way a new, more responsible way of doing doing business that would be good for the planet, good for people and good for the bottom line! TerraCycle has won many awards and accolades for its environmentally responsible business model from Inc. Magazine, Red Herring, The Home Depot, The Environmental Business Journal, The Social Venture Network, Zerofootprint and many other highly regarded organizations.

TerraCycle also runs free national collection programs that pay non-profits and schools TerraCycle has exclusive partnerships with major CPG companies such as Kraft Foods, Frito Lay (Pepsi), Stonyfield Farm, Mars Wrigley and many more. The partnerships create free collection programs that pay schools and non-profits nationwide to collect used packaging such as drink pouches, energy bar wrappers, yogurt cups, cookie wrappers, chip bags and more! The collected materials are upcycled into affordable, high quality products ranging from tote bags and purses to shower curtains and kites. In addition, TerraCycle works with these partners to find innovative uses for all of their waste streams and, by making products from these various waste streams, TerraCycle prevents 1000’s of tons of waste from going to landfills.

It even says on the website, "Get paid for trash." At first thought, the idea of turning throwaway packaging into "products ranging from tote bags and purses to shower curtains and kites" may seem like a good idea. I mean, this is material that is going to go into the landfill, anyway. Why not just save the materials from going into the landfill and derive more utility from them? Well, here are my issues with the concept, and with the paragraphs (unedited) that I copy-pasted from the website:

1) The "upcycled" products (I have one - a pencil/pen case that was given away at the Forum) advertise in full force products like Kool Aid, Oreos and Pepsi. This sends messages and advertises to younger people that consuming products created by these companies is "good" and "cool" and maybe even "good for the environment." (Remember that post a few days ago about Coke encouraging people to recycle?) The creation of such products in no way reduces the amount of material that will continuously be extracted from our earth to produce the packaging for these artificial "foods." It will only encourage people to continue to buy food that comes in packaging that just can't go away.

2) How many tote bags and shower curtains and pencil cases do we need? The pencil case that they gave me is pretty durable - I expect it to last me a lifetime and more. Oh right, it is made from sturdy plastic that will take decades to ever "go away." So, say we come to a point where 6 billion plus pencil cases are made, and everyone in the world gets a pencil case, Barack Obama's daughters included, will TerraCycle keep producing the pencil cases? Well, as long as people continue to drink Kool Aid, more pouches will be discarded, and more pencil cases will be made. Hmm, the trash just seems to be cramming into our space above ground, now...

3) This is further exacerbated by the fact that this company is totally for profit. It is in TerraCycle's interest that people drink Kool Aid, eat Oreos, and continue to increase diabetes and obesity in the world.

But there may be something to learn from TerraCycle. The website claims that there are more than 10 million people that are "trash collectors." (TerraCycle relies on the consumers themselves to sort out the packaging such that it is hyper-separated into streams.) To get that many people to do something in concert is laudable. But in the end, it seems to me that the company is of the same ilk as Pepsi, Hollister and Coach - make people think that they are cool, hip, concerned, aware and with the times by making them buy your product, to fill the pockets of a few.


  1. I think the concept of TerraCycle is inspiring; it shows that the idea from your last post that "we have enough materials already made to last a lifetime" could work! The TerraCycle business model doesn't require large corporations to keep making waste? Like you said, there is already enough waste products to last a life time? Their goal is to find a way to use these waste products, which is in my eyes a noble goal. I see your point that minimizing the waste associated with the unsustainable practices makes these corporations seem more sustainable. On the other hand, couldn't we extend the same reasoning to any reduction in waste? Couldn't we say that when people carefully reduce their waste, like yourself, it makes the problem look smaller? I think part of why TerraCycle doesn't make sense to you is that they are taking the waste stream directly from the companies, which helps them. Imagine if they took the waste from landfills? Wouldn't that be great? I imagine they don't do this because it is technically a lot more challenging but I believe that if we stopped making garbage TerraCycle could make products for a long time and that is a great thing.

  2. I understand what you are saying, but I think TerraCycle advertises waste and trash, and provides no incentive to people to stop doing what they are doing. Yes, it would be nice if they used what was in landfills. I like to think of it as "using what we have already." But what TerraCycle seems to do, to me, is use not the waste we "have already" but use the waste we "will have." Their advertising turns into an incentive for people to not feel bad about waste...

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  4. I agree with you, Darshan. I bought a pencil case for $1 at Target several years ago when the only TerraCycle product I'd seen before was "Worm Poop" fertilizer, which is packaged in discarded soda bottles. The case is made from a Rold Gold (Frito Lay) bag, and I use it to hold my coupons in my purse. It probably will last a lifetime, or as long as the plastic zipper (not recycled) holds up. The two things that started to bother me were the blatant advertising (and the perception of Frito Lay, et. al., being "cool") and the inescapable fact that my pencil case was NOT made of a discarded bag, but from cast-off not-good-enough packaging that was never used and would have been thrown away. I'm not sure what was wrong with it, but it was never a chip bag, so it was not REAL waste, but PERCEIVED waste.

  5. I’m considering signing up with Terracycle in our local community because we live in a remote rural area with less-than-progressive recycling options. Many recyclable things are going into the garbage (chip bags, dairy tubs, and the like) because there is no local way to recycle them.

    If Terracycle is a problematic solution for our needs, could you please recommend a better one? And please, a solution that deals with the "waste we have" rather than the waste we wish we didn't. For economic reasons and others, it is likely that the majority of the community that I live in will not stop buying junk food packaged in mylar bags. They also won't pressure Frito-Lay and others to convert to all compostable packaging.

    My community is way in the baby-steps part of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and they really need viable options to divert waste from landfills.

  6. Hi there,

    I apologise for taking so long to reply. I've been out of town for a while. :)

    You raise really important points, some of which I fail to think about sometimes. I have generally spoken from the vantage point being in a place that allows me to make the choices I do. I know that this is not the case for many other people; for example, Detroit, just forty short miles away, is a place that may not allow me the luxury of living trash-free. So, I appreciate your thoughts.

    A few things bear mentioning. The first is that many times, big changes come slowly, through smaller changes. I do think that in your case, if TerraCycle is the only current option, then you ought to take advantage of it. But at the same time, I think that this choice must also consider the "What next?" question. That is, once your town has started using TerraCycle, how will people remain open to change? Many times, we may make a change in our communities and personal lives, without necessarily thinking how that change fits into a grander scheme of changes. You raise the issues of economy and food availability. TerraCycle is the first step, the thing you can do more easily than change accessibility to food, and eating habits, but hopefully just the first step.

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