We value recycling in our society because it finds secondary use for materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. The biggest drawback to this from a material perspective is that the recycled products almost always diminish in quality each time they are processed (or “downcycled”). Steel, aluminum and glass may be endlessly recyclable, but the virgin plastic in a water bottle is not. This limits the potential for reuse across a wide variety of waste streams, pre and post-consumer packaging included, to the point that the ultimate end-of-life destination is still usually the landfill or incinerator. This is a far cry from what many in the field of sustainability would say is the most ideal reuse model: a circular economy.
It’s a challenging model to implement in today’s recycling infrastructure—designing packaging and other raw materials so they may repopulate the manufacturing process over and over again, effectively eliminating the generation of waste. For us at TerraCycle, this is the ultimate solution we should be challenging ourselves to reach, and one that we think is possible to achieve pending some important incremental shifts in present recycling systems. How do we start?
First, we need to work to make recycling itself a more viable method of waste disposal. The rate of recycling in the U.S. is 35%, a relatively low recovery rate that is likely due, in part, to the wide gap in sustainability policies that vary greatly between states; some have mandatory curbside recycling, some no curbside programs at all, and others offer voluntary programs on a municipality-by-municipality basis. It’s the difference between a state like Oklahoma (it’s capitol, Oklahoma City, even has one of the lowest rates in the nation), and an eco-policy trendsetter like California. If we want to increase the potential for a circular economic market, average rates across the country (which could help determine our capacity to collect potential recyclables) should be much higher.
One way is through improved regulation, either at the state of federal level. Environmentally progressive California may be more exception than rule as of now, but the state still shows how powerfully effective state policies can be. The California Bottle Bill, the San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, and many other alliances between state, local municipality, and private sector actors all contribute to California’s extremely high recycling rate. These policies can absolutely work, but only if states and their constituents can be convinced to shift their policy priorities accordingly.
Without better regulation, there are still alternatives that can incentivize recycling and strengthen existing (or build nonexistent) recycling programs. The Closed Loop Fund is a CPG company-sponsored fund that plans to invest $100 million USD, in the form of zero-interest loans, into municipal recycling and sustainability programs across the country. Injecting funds directly into regions where they are needed can help make recycling an accessible option where there are otherwise no alternatives.
TerraCycle programs, as alternatives to conventional recycling systems, break through the common economic barriers that prevent materials from being recycled in the traditional market. By developing recycling solutions for waste like cigarette butts, candy wrappers, chip bags and coffee capsules, we essentially show how it’s possible to create new markets for recyclables by incentivizing the collection of previously unrecyclable waste. While collecting and processing these nontraditional recyclables is still dependent on TerraCycle’s own operational capabilities, it nonetheless places us that much closer to developing long-term, practical, economically viable recycling mechanisms.
If we increase the scope of recyclability, we increase our capacity to collect materials that could theoretically be reintegrated into a manufacturer’s supply line. TerraCycle employs this model in two of our partnerships: one with 3M through the Scotch Tape Brigade, and the other with Sanford Brands, sponsor of the Writing Instruments Brigade. Through these programs, tape dispenser waste and writing instruments are collected and repurposed, ultimately going back to either 3M or Sanford where the recycled materials are reintegrated into the manufacturing process. In both instances, a small-scale circular market prevents waste from going to landfills, and lowers manufacturing costs.
A truly circular market for waste might sound utopian, but we have the tools and measures at our disposal to help make it possible. With improved and standardized regulation, a higher focus on making recycling more accessible across municipalities, and recycling solutions that are facilitated in-part by major CPG companies and manufacturers themselves, waste streams that were once useless outputs destined for a landfill may instead start becoming valued raw materials.