TerraCycle: The global refill revolution is here to stay

EXCLUSIVE: With consumer concerns around plastics and climate change skyrocketing, brands are increasingly betting on reuse and refill models to minimise both carbon and waste, TerraCycle's chief executive officer Tom Szaky has revealed.

TerraCycle: The global refill revolution is here to stay

TerraCycle's approach to its mission to "eliminate the idea of waste" has evolved past "recycling the non-recyclable"

Since it was founded in 2001, recycling firm TerraCycle has expanded rapidly from a startup to a global juggernaut. What started as a recycling scheme in select pockets of the US has grown into a global enterprise, with local authorities, consumer goods firms, retailers, manufacturers and members of the general public across 20 countries now involved in TerraCycle’s vision of “eliminating the idea of waste”.

That said, if a week is a long time in politics, it’s even longer in the world of sustainability – meaning the conversation on waste has been turned on its head countless times in the past 18 years.

TerraCycle’s flagship offering involves collecting and recycling products and packaging classed as “non-recyclable” or “hard-to-recycle” in kerbside collections. It’s been the firm’s largest source of growth since its inception and purports to have diverted more than 7.7 billion pieces of waste from landfill to date.

Nonetheless, only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled – something the general public are increasingly being made aware of through campaigns such as Sky’s #PassOnPlastic, A Plastic Planet’s #TurnOffThePlasticTap and media such as Blue Planet 2 and BBC’s War on Plastics. Moreover, media exposés and the digitization of supply chains means that policymakers and consumers now have unprecedented access to information regarding the plastic industry’s systemic waste crime and human rights abuses.

Combine these shifts with a growing scientific focus on the human health impacts of plastics and according to Szaky, you get a clear answer to the question “what are businesses wishing to be classed as sustainability leaders now betting on?” : refill and reuse.

“Refill has really hit a nerve; people are taking it quite seriously but also getting – and staying – excited,” Szaky told edie ahead of his appearance at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details).

“We’ve had a brand a day join the Loop platform since we launched and we’ve also had really good discussions so far with retailers and brands about the level of sales and re-orders. People are not just entering the platform, but continuing to use it.”

Keeping in the Loop

For those unfamiliar, Loop is TerraCycle’s flagship refill platform, whereby consumer goods brands provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging. Retailers, meanwhile, provide the sales platform, while TerraCycle deals with the collection, cleaning and refilling of empty packaging and, at the end of its life, its recycling.

The platform first launched in Paris on 14 May, with food and drink, health and beauty and cleaning products, as well as office supplies, sold through Carrefour. Loop has since gone live in the US through partnerships with Walgreens and Kroger, and is set for a UK launch via Tesco next February.

When TerraCycle first unveiled Loop at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, the platform received a flurry of positive media attention – as did the initial brand signatories, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Colgate Palmolive.

But, according to Szaky, the attention given to Loop – and other refill offerings – since then, has been “continuing and growing” and could never be described as “just a blip”.

He explained that Loop’s success in securing launch dates not only in TerraCycle’s homeland of the US, but in France, the UK, Canada (May 2020), Japan (late 2020), Germany (late 2020) and Australia (early 2021), has been born not solely out of one-off brand interest – but by what is shaping up to be a “permanent” change in what consumers and corporates alike regard as sustainable business leadership.

“With Loop, the focus is waste; but we’re also doing a lot of life cycle analyses to look at the carbon, water and air quality impact of the model,” Szaky said.

“That’s because companies are seriously looking for solutions that are moving all the needles forward continually. They’re not looking to solve waste temporarily, but to solve it for good while also looking at their impact from a climate and water point of view.”

The climate conundrum

Szaky’s observations come at a time when climate change has risen up the political and social agenda in the UK to heights not seen since the time of the Climate Change Act’s ratification in 2008. Environmental activism – be it in the form of School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion marches, or in action from brands like The Body Shop and Patagonia – is visible in major cities every day. Brits say they are more concerned about climate change than Brexit and the campaign for a Green New Deal has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic.

According to Szaky, this “conversation change” means companies of all sizes are no longer shying away from the “sheer complexities” of exploring not only the waste impact of their packaging, but its climate and water footprints too.

Research has repeatedly shown that while glass and aluminium have longer recycling lifespans that plastics and are not as likely to end up as ocean waste, their life-cycle carbon footprint is several times higher, largely due to extraction and transport weight. Moreover, concerns around unintended consequences and a lack of unified definitions continue to dominate the conversations on bio-based, biodegradable and compostable packaging.

And, even as companies switch to these alternatives, WWF estimates that emissions from plastics will reach 17% of the world’s carbon budget by mid-century.

In all of this, Szaky believes, there is only one option for businesses looking to mitigate unintended environmental consequences from all angles – refill and reuse.

“Plastics and packaging is a very complex conversation and it can only be a good thing that this conversation is happening and evolving,” he concluded. “The way it’s going will only benefit [refill and reuse] platforms.”

“There’s no doubt that developing new packaging is a major investment, or that schemes like Loop need to work in a wider system. But refill is not just about reuse, but also about a massive amount of design innovation, which excites brands.”

TerraCycle at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020

TerraCycle’s chief executive Tom Szaky will be appearing at day two of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to deliver a keynote speech on resource efficiency. 

During the two-day event at London’s Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February, some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability will gather to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO, plus directors and senior managers from Pret-A-Manger, Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie