Packaging waste: Creating value by doing good

Tom Szaky in Sustainable Packaging on January 14, 2015

The recyclability of any piece of product packaging is dependent on its manufacturer. Consumers don’t make the decision to use an metallized pouch over a highly recyclable rigid plastic, or to substitute non-recyclable plastic for a bioplastic resin.

Even so, the disposal method for packaging ends up being determined by consumers who ultimately need to decide if the fate of that packaging is resigned to the blue bin, or the garbage. This requires a sort of value assessment: Is this material worth my time to recycle or can it be thrown away? And in a country like the U.S. with only a 35% recovery rate, most consumers seem to favor the latter. The solution seems simple enough—if you want consumers to value recycling, make them value the material itself.

The most basic, straightforward way to accomplish that is through a refund or redemption system like we have in the U.S. with aluminum cans and beverage containers. While it’s definitely helped increase the volume of certain recyclable materials, this method has some obvious limitations. For one, there needs to be a market demand for the recycled material to justify the cost of the deposit subsidy. Unfortunately, there are no reliable markets for the collection and recycling of most post-consumer packaging, making this economically impractical for most waste streams.

We’ve been trying to get around this economic impasse for years at TerraCycle. When your business model is dependent on new and innovative recycling systems for previously non-recyclable waste streams, you start to notice what gets people excited to start collecting. If you make it easy to do and show that they can benefit their community in the process, many consumers will opt to recycle. This is how our sponsored waste programs work—you sign up for a program, start collecting and earn points per unit of waste you ship to us. These points can then be turned into cash donations to a school or charity of your choice. In the end, both the earth and local communities win because consumers start seeing value in the packaging they were previously throwing away.

By making consumers see packaging as a means to achieving social good, we’ve been able to inspire huge collections over dozens of different waste streams. Just recently, we worked with ShopRite and Colgate on the Recycled Playground Challenge, an oral care waste (toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and such) recycling contest for schools. The rules were simple: send in the waste, accumulate points for every unit sent and the school with the most points wins a playground made from recycled oral care waste. The finished playground was unveiled on Nov. 4, 2014, at the winning school, the BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City, NJ. The runners-up were awarded with upcycled pens, pencil cases, tote bags and ShopRite gift cards. No participants paid a dime, and even the students were engaged, seeing their own packaging waste as a means to benefit the school. 

We want to give consumers inspiration to recycle by showing them what they can build for themselves, their families and their communities through recycling. Our recycling system allows packaging to be treated almost like a form of currency, one that can be exchanged for donations to a charity or school. Imagine the potential social impact these programs could make if amalgamated into one massive national service like Box Tops for Education, but for entire pieces of packaging? It’s time that consumers started looking at their packaging waste with a more optimistic eye, but they can’t do it without engagement from retailers, manufacturers and other consumer packaged goods (CPG) actors.


Author Tom Szaky, founder/CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, recently published a book called "Revolution in a Bottle" and is the star of a National Geographic Channel special, "Garbage Moguls."

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