Globally, an estimated 22.7 trillion pieces of consumer waste are discarded, totalling in excess of five million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Recycling rates remain dismally low in most countries and environmental education is not a priority at most schools. These growing factors are creating a massive challenge both in available resources and the health of our planet and its waterways. On home turf, 22.2 million tonnes of waste are deposited to Australian landfills each year.
The size of the problem presents a number of huge challenges for the future of waste management. A number of organisations are looking to cyclical solutions to this challenge in a circular economy. TerraCycle doesn’t claim to be the ‘be-all end-all’ answer, but rather one solution to a rapidly growing problem of post-consumer product waste by, for example, providing a second life to an old toothbrush that would normally be discarded in the bin.
As a social business with a triple bottom line of ‘planet, people and profit’ TerraCycle’s motivation from its beginning as a worm fertiliser start-up to a global recycling company is to ‘eliminate the idea of waste’.
Through nationwide collection programs called Brigades, that are free and accessible, TerraCycle’s purpose is to recycle ‘unrecyclable’ waste streams that others deem challenging, impossible or unsavoury and provide a cyclical solution through reuse, upcycling and recycling. TerraCycle does not believe in linear solutions such as incinerating waste or waste-to-landfill.
The entrepreneur – boy meets worm
TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky was born in Budapest in 1982. A few years later he emigrated with his family as political refugees to Holland and eventually to Toronto. At the age of 14 he started his first business, a web design company.
Szaky arrived in the US in 2001 as a Princeton University student, but the following year he dropped out to dedicate himself full-time to starting TerraCycle. The company now operates in 21 countries, including launching in Australia and New Zealand in 2013 and Japan in 2014.
TerraCycle has developed proprietary recycling processes for waste streams as diverse as coffee capsules to cigarette butts to toothbrushes, and it engages individuals and large companies to collect waste and pay for recycling costs. TerraCycle has diverted over four billion pieces of waste and donated US$9 million to charities globally as part of its programs.
The TerraCycle recycling business model was brought to Australia by Anna Minns, a former criminal prosecutor and businesswoman, who discovered TerraCycle while living in the US. TerraCycle launched in the Australian market in 2014 with a key partnership with Australia Post, introducing a new concept of sending waste in the mail, making previously ‘unrecyclable’ waste nationally recyclable regardless of location via the Australia Post network. TerraCycle in Australia has diverted over 17 million units of waste since its launch.
Sponsored waste is born
Where TerraCycle has exceeded normal practice is that its programs are accessible from anywhere in the country. It is completely free for anyone in Australia to participate in the Brigade programs through dropping off waste at their local Australia Post Office. TerraCycle’s recycling model also rewards collectors with a donation to their favourite school or charity for every piece of waste they send.
TerraCycle upcycles and recycles this traditionally non-recyclable waste. These products keep waste out of our landfills and contribute to a cleaner world by offsetting the need for creating virgin materials to make sustainable products.
A significant aspect about the program is that TerraCycle is helping to transform the way major CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies view product stewardship initiatives. TerraCycle’s proactive approach to making more waste streams available to the public to recycle is to seek industry sponsorship.
In Australia, TerraCycle accepts selected items of waste via the following free programs:
- Colgate Oral Care Brigade: used toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, floss containers and outer packaging
- Natures Organics Cleaner Packaging Brigade: nozzles and triggers on cleaning, beauty and laundry products, beauty wipe packaging
- Nespresso Capsules Brigade: only Nespresso capsules are accepted
- Nescafé Dolce Gusto Capsules Brigade: only Nescafé Dolce Gusto capsules are accepted
- Whole Kids Snack and Pouch Brigade: snack wrappers and yoghurt pouches, and
- Australia Post Mailing Satchel Brigade: mailing post satchels.
Although most companies invest significant resources into design packaging, almost no resources are spent to find ways to deal with end of life solutions for packaging waste. The traditional challenge in recycling is that waste must be sorted in order to be recycled – TerraCycle overcomes this problem because the Brigade system sorts all waste before it arrives at TerraCycle’s recycling facility. TerraCycle’s research and development team in the US determines the solution for each waste stream and local processors and manufacturing partners are sought in each market.
[quote style=’1′ cite=”]Although most companies invest significant resources to design packaging, almost no resources are spent to find ways to deal with end of life solutions for packaging waste.[/quote]
A new TerraCycle program launched in Australia in 2015. With more businesses using the convenience of online shopping for their daily needs, Australians are being encouraged to recycle their used plastic mailing satchels via a new free national recycling program, the Australia Post Mailing Satchel Brigade.
As part of the partnership between Australia Post, customers across Australia can now post their used plastic mailing satchels for free to TerraCycle to have them turned into material used to build recycled products such as park benches and industrial items.
A number of small and large companies, litter groups, community groups, local clubs, schools, councils and many other individuals and groups are highly engaged with the program and continue to ship their waste to TerraCycle via Australia Post.
Community meets business
TerraCycle’s recycling system makes a positive impact due to its collective community grassroots approach to recycling waste and strategic partnerships with many environmental and community stakeholders.
TerraCycle’s program changes the way in which people view and understand waste by engaging their environmental consciousness and challenging their long-standing beliefs about what can or can’t be recycled or repurposed. By making products directly from waste, consumers, especially young people, can see how packaging they used to throw away can be reused.
TerraCycle’s partnership with Colgate Australia and the Bright Smiles Bright Futures program is in its second year. Primary schools across Australia are invited to take part in the program to learn how to achieve good oral health, but also take steps to create a healthy planet. It is estimated that 30 million toothbrushes and 70 million toothpaste tubes are used in Australia each year. The program is a great school community effort to recycle waste that would otherwise end up in landfill.
The unique recycling solution is a joint initiative with TerraCycle and Colgate-Palmolive. Teachers were invited to register for the Colgate Oral Care Brigade and encourage their students to recycle oral care waste and win rewards for their school.
The future of zero waste
TerraCycle’s innovation is unique to the Australian market. We believe there is no other organisation offering the ability to recycle difficult waste streams such as oral care waste, yoghurt pouches and coffee capsules on a national scale.
Where there is no industry sponsorship readily available, TerraCycle has pioneered the ‘Zero Waste’ platform – a consumer pays model for businesses, organisations and individuals interested in achieving zero waste on a particular waste stream. The Zero Waste boxes scheme allows a number of different waste streams to be recycled, including hairnets, latex gloves and stationery. The product, which has been successful in the UK and US with clients such as Apple, recently launched in Australia and is sold through online retailers Australia Post and Office Works.
TerraCycle is also transforming the way manufacturers view recycled plastic. By providing more sustainable options without a premium, as TerraCycle expands, hopes to provide a sustainable option for major plastic companies and local manufacturers to consider the commercial and environmental viability of recycled plastics linking with ‘closing the loop’.
TerraCycle is looking to expand its Australian arm with more waste streams made available and believes that anything can and should be recycled – from chewing gum to feminine hygiene products and even nappies, with the main aim of educating the wider community to see waste as a resource.
The author, Ausseela Thanaphongsakorn, is manager of Communications and Strategic Partnerships at TerraCycle. This article also appears in Issue 1 of Corporate Waste Solution magazine.