by Andrew Gelfman: Consumers And Consumption…
It’s lunchtime and you’ve almost finished your meal, but you’re sitting so far away from the only recycling bin in the room. The trash can is so much closer. It’s so easy to think “What’s the harm? One paper plate won’t hurt anyone, right?” Although it may be convenient, the choice to opt for the landfill, when applied to the entire world, really does add up. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts.
Ever since rampant consumption became the norm, products transitioned from natural resources like wood and metal to more easily mass-produced materials, such as plastics and foams. These artificial materials are disrupting our ecosystems. TerraCycle wants to fix that.
TerraCycle has one main goal: prevent waste from ending up in landfills, incinerators, or even our oceans.
To do this, the company constructs national programs where people can recycle all sorts of things that normally couldn’t be recycled. Everything from cigarette butts to latex gloves get collected and processed to keep them out of a trash can.
“The real exciting part about recycling,” says Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, “is that not only does it eliminate the need to landfill, incinerate, or throw as litter, but it eliminates the need for new materials to be extracted. Every single environmental issue…is linked to consumption and consumerism.”
Instead of Blame, Make Businesses Part Of The Solution
TerraCycle is currently just shy of $20 million in sales, with consistent and significant increases to that number every year. Rather than blaming corporations for being a part of the problem, TerraCycle decides to work with them and help them reduce their waste. “The real answer to cigarettes…is that people shouldn’t smoke. There won’t be cigarette butts on the ground. There won’t be all the negative health effects. Still today, one in five people smoke,” says Tom.
“My goal, instead of commenting on whether cigarettes or any other product is good or bad, is to say let’s convince these organizations or retailers or factories to invest their money not in necessarily marketing and TV commercials, but in creating robust recycling solutions for those things that couldn’t be recycled before.”
TerraCycle created their cigarette recycling program four years ago, but they already have it implemented in 11 countries around the world, and more on the way. Success like that can only be done by partnering with the world’s biggest companies. TerraCycle has a wide variety of partners; not only the ones you would expect, such as Whole Foods or Clif Bar, but also large international corporations such as Nestle, Kraft, Phillip Morris, and many others.
At the end of the day, it’s not the companies that make the most difference.
“The most powerful voice in this entire equation,” explains Tom, “is the consumer…We vote with actual hard money multiple times a day for what type of world we want to live in. Whatever we choose [to buy], we are voting with money that that is more of what we want, and we want less of the other things…If consumers want a better world, they have to buy their way into it by picking the right products that perhaps are recyclable or holistic or are spreading those things we want more of and not buying the things we don’t want more of.”
The Power Of Upcycling
There are five things you can do with waste today, according to Tom. The worst is obviously putting it in a landfill. The next best would be gaining the item’s “caloric value”, which is popular in places like Germany and Japan. It means burning the item and gaining it’s potential energy. It’s better than landfilling, but you’re still only getting that energy once. On the opposite end of the scale is reusing and upcycling. Reusing is anything from hand-me-downs to refurbished electronics.
Upcycling is very interesting in that it reuses the material for a function that is different from it’s original purpose. One such example of upcycling would be a table that is made from an old door, or taking apart a pen and using the plastic for a credit card and the metal for a trash can. If the object can’t be upcycled, recycling is the next best option.
This is where TerraCycle comes into the picture. By coming to companies that normally couldn’t care less and providing them with programs that not only help the environment, but also give a campaign to customers and stakeholders, everybody wins.
It all comes down to what we as a society decide is recyclable. For example, look around your room. Literally everything in your room will one day become waste, including your room itself. TerraCycle focuses on changing that notion, and bringing another life into those materials.