TerraCycle: Recycling won’t solve the waste dilemma, but consumers can

Improving economic incentives behind waste collection models and a "silent revolution" in how consumers interact with products will be essential in tackling "monumental environmental crises", all of which can be linked back to waste.

That is the view of developer TerraCycle’s chief executive Tom Szaky, who claimed that the world “can’t recycle [it’s] way out of waste” and instead called on individuals to tweak shopping habits in order to promote durable and used products.

The TerraCycle founder claimed that a product’s biggest environmental impact is the extraction of virgin materials used to create it. With recycling systems floundering in some countries and markets, Szaky called on consumers to change shopping habits to purchase durable products in closed-loop systems.

Speaking to the World Economic Forum (WEC) during a live Facebook webinar on Friday, Szaky said: “One of the key aspects in creating a circular model around waste is fulfilling the baseline goals for an organisation. For retailers this is consumerism.

“We show that if you promote recycling platforms around waste then you will drive consumerism. We can’t recycle our way out of waste. We need change our buying habits to support durable goods, used goods and ideally not buying whatsoever.”

According to Szaky, consumers are purchasing around ten times more stuff compared to 100 years ago, the majority of which is “voluntary consumerism” and things that “put a smile” on our faces. He claimed that big business wasn’t designed to promote anti-consumerism, but that they would “mirror” consumer habits and would therefore introduce more durable and used goods if society demanded it.

Szaky noted that around 5% of global packaging was currently recycled, with around 25% ending up in the oceans and the remaining 70% burned or buried. He also suggested that every environmental issue “boiled down” to waste and consumerism – with deforestation largely driven by creating more grazing land for cattle so we can consume more beef.

Szaky also claimed that waste collection and closed-loop models for hard-to-recycle products – which TerraCycle specialises in – were struggling to take-off in developing markets due to a lack of financial incentives and an “understandable” preference to tackle issues such as education instead.

With governments and businesses shackled by financial imbalances, Szaky called on consumers to introduce a demand for durable products that promotes reuse and upcycling.

“Consumerism is the underlying issue of every single environmental issue of earth,” Szaky said. “We need to buy more consciously and agree that everything we buy will be waste. If you agree with that, then try to move to durable goods. You may have to spend a little more upfront, but you’ll save in the long-term and the environment will thank you in the process.

“Shop the things that you want more of, and big business will reflect this in their products. Brands are just a reflection of our desires, but it’s our job to choose what we want and it’s a very powerful choice.”

Consumer understanding

Szaky’s claims echo those of industry experts who have suggested that companies that are tackling key environmental and societal issues through the way they design, make and sell products will become the leaders of the low-carbon economy, due to the way that consumers now view sustainability.

In January this year, waste companies and local authorities were urged to communicate more clearly with consumers after it was revealed that the amount of contaminated recycling sent to landfill had almost doubled in three years.

Matt Mace

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