TerraCycle: Recycling alone won't tackle 'root cause' of plastics waste crisis

EXCLUSIVE: Despite creating a business model built on offerings of recycling solutions to solving the world's plastic pollution crisis, TerraCycle's general manager for Europe claims it will only ever form part of any closed-loop system.

Historically, TerraCycle had approached its vision to 'eliminate the concept of waste' through recycling solutions alone

Historically, TerraCycle had approached its vision to 'eliminate the concept of waste' through recycling solutions alone

Since it was founded in 2001 by entrepreneur Tom Szaky, TerraCycle has expanded rapidly, partnering with local authorities, consumer goods firms, retailers, manufacturers and members of the general public across 20 countries in a bid to spread its vision of “eliminating the idea of waste”.

By offering such stakeholders innovative solutions for recycling or upcycling products and packaging which is classed as “non-recyclable” or “hard-to-recycle” in kerbside collections, it has diverted more than 7.7 billion pieces of waste, contributed by more than 202 million consumers, from landfill to date.

The majority of these items were collected through take-back points hosted at community groups, schools, charities and retailers across TerraCycle’s markets, or by individuals who act as standalone collectors. Under this system, these stakeholders can post used products and packaging to TerraCycle free of charge.

The system has undeniably proved popular with businesses and consumers alike. In recent months, TerraCycle has launched partnerships using this model with Mars PetcareColgate PalmoliveKellogg and Acuvue targeting pet food packaging, oral healthcare products, Pringles cans and contact lenses respectively. Additionally, consumers sent more than 500,000 used crisp and snack packets to TerraCycle through its partnership with Walkers during its first three months of operation. 

Nonetheless, TerraCycle’s general manager for Europe Laure Cucuron believes that recycling and the use of recycled content alone cannot close the loop on global streams of aluminium and plastics.

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of her appearance at edie Live this month (scroll down for details), Cucuron said: “Over the next few decades, the conversation around how we limit the production of single-use plastic and try to reuse products and packaging as much as possible will be really important.

“It would be easy to call for more infrastructure, innovation and funding for recycling, but this would only the symptoms of the waste crisis. The root of the challenge really lies in the model of convenience and single-use consumption that we have had since plastic became a mainstream material.”

Reduce and reuse before recycle

Cucuron’s sentiments come at a time when businesses are being urged to go beyond designing plastic products and packaging for recyclability and to either dramatically reduce or eliminate plastics from their portfolios. The calls to action are coming from campaigners, activists, business leaders and consumers alike, who are keen to cite the fact that globally, only 9% of all plastic ever made has been captured and recycled successfully. Moreover, plastics are generally not classed as infinitely recyclable in the same way that some metals are, owing to the fact that their physical quality is likely to lessen during reprocessing.

In response to these challenges, TerraCycle used its platform at January’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos to unveil a new, reuse-based approach to its vision, which it had previously been driving solely through “recycling the ‘non-recyclable’”.

Called Loop, the service enables businesses to provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging. Brands will offer refillable products and host them on retail websites, alongside their usual offerings of food, drinks, health and beauty products, cleaning products and office supplies. Once consumers have used the products, TerraCycle will collect the empty packaging from their homes for cleaning and refilling, with any damaged or end-of-life packaging sent for recycling. Transport will be undertaken by UPS’s fleet of low-carbon shipping vehicles, while waste management firm SUEZ will recycle any packaging waste.

Providing an update on the progress of the scheme, which received early backing from 24 big-name companies including Unilever, Nestle and PepsiCo, Cucuron revealed that the first city-wide launch of the platform will take place in Paris this month, almost two months later than originally planned. Refillable products will be offered exclusively through supermarket Carrefour’s online shop.

London’s Loop launch, meanwhile, still does not have a set date, Cucuron added. However, the concept has already garnered interest from retailers further afield, with companies across Toronto, Tokyo, San Francisco and an as-yet-unconfirmed city in Germany set to roll loop out during 2020. After the model is proven in urban locations, Cucuron explained, TerraCycle will be keen to explore nationwide expansions.

“We are really hoping to take the existing distribution system for consumer goods in cities and optimise transport and logistics, minimise waste and gain scale for a reuse model as quickly as possible,” she said.   

It is clear, then, that TerraCycle sees a profitable future in refill – even if previous attempts by retailers to scale up the model beyond specific lines such as laundry products have, for the most part, been unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, Cucuron believes that reuse models are unlikely to become a sweeping solution for all single-use items in our lifetime. They will be challenging to apply to products for which health and safety must be absolute, such as packaging for medical supplies; products which we are used to having on-the-go, like crisps and other snacks; or to health and beauty or cleaning products in emerging economies, where low-income families rely on cheap sachet models for their basic hygiene needs, she argued.

“I think reuse and recyclability are complimentary,” Cucuron concluded.

“Reuse models like Loop can be part of a system which produces fewer single-use items and creates less plastic pollution, but they are just getting started and cannot replace the current consumption model in its entirety.”


TerraCycle at edie Live

TerraCycle’s general manager for Europe Laure Cucuron will be appearing on the circular economy theatre at edie Live this month (21-22 May 2019), as part of a session covering advice on how to make YOUR organisation a leader in resource efficiency. Taking place at 9.45am on Day Two of the event, the panel discussion will see Cucuron explore various routes which organisations across all sectors can take to drive circular economy progress with experts from Carpet Recycling UK, JPA Furniture, B&M Waste Services and BAM Construct UK. 

The session is just one of many taking place across four theatres during the two-day show, which is edie’s biggest of the year and a highlight in the calendar for sustainability, energy and environment professionals. Under the theme of “turning ambition into ACTION”, we will be bringing attendees the inspiration and solutions needed to achieve a low-carbon, resource efficient and profitable future for their organisation.

Register for your free edie Live 2019 pass here.


Sarah George



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