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  • Trisha Bhujle

Revamping Recycling: TerraCycle's Mission to Transform the Unrecyclable

Though TerraCycle's vision to give unrecyclable items a new life is admirable, few people know about the organization itself. It's about time we change that.

It’s no surprise that we live in a society defined by consumption. We constantly find ourselves splurging on groceries or goodies at check-out lines or filling our digital shopping carts with the knick-knacks that catch our eye. Surrounded by treats and toys and toiletries and tapestries of every possible kind, we’ve grown far too comfortable with the idea that we should try or buy as much as we can – all in an attempt to satisfy our ever-growing craving for “more.”


Yet it’s not our consumption that is itself the problem. Rather, it’s the waste that our consumption produces. From even the smallest opened ketchup packets to entire battered suitcases, we throw away anything and everything that can’t be reused. We toss the cardboard containers in which we order french fries at fast-food restaurants, the broken flip flops that we’ve worn one too many times, and the shampoo bottles whose contents can no longer be salvaged. As we remain trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of buying, tossing, and repeating, the old adage “Out with the old, in with the new” seems truer than ever before.


With that being said, our waste isn’t entirely our fault. We can’t help it that we need new clothes once our old ones start to tear, or that we love the plastic-packaged mini muffins lining the snack aisle of the grocery store. What we can control, however, is just how much of that waste actually reaches the landfill. What we can control is what happens to our waste once we throw it away, and how quickly our dumpsters increase in size. That is where TerraCycle comes into play.


TerraCycle is a hub that enables people to recycle otherwise unrecyclable products manufactured by the organization’s partner companies. A pioneer in the realm of minimizing landfill waste, the organization collects items as diverse as cigarette butts and mechanical pencils and sends them to facilities that break them down into something usable. Through TerraCycle’s programs, people can prevent Taco Bell® sauce packets, Burt’s Bees chapsticks, and Colgate® toothpaste tubes (among many others!) from reaching dumpsters by simply dropping these items off at local drop-off points – for free! If such a vast array of our household items can be kept far from landfills, then why doesn’t everybody TerraCycle more often?


The answer lies in both awareness and accessibility. Even though TerraCycle has formed partnerships with organizations that provide us with many of our favorite products, the vast majority of people are simply unaware of the concept itself. Most people still discard their old Brita® filters or their eos chapsticks or their Ticonderoga pencils, unaware that TerraCycle has the ability to recycle them all at no cost to the consumer. And while several college campuses (mine included!) have begun to integrate TerraCycle drop-off points in their academic or residential buildings, most students are simply uninformed about the organization and all of the good that it can do.


Accessibility is likewise problematic. While over 160 of TerraCycle’s products can be recycled for free, its Zero Waste Box program comes at a significant cost. Unlike items such as Takis® snack bags and Swiffer® dusters, which can be disposed of for free at TerraCycle drop-off points, the products specific to the Zero Waste Box program are generally only recycled if you purchase a box from TerraCycle, collect items in that box, and ship the box back to the recycling facility. Among the available options are an $86 box for candy and snack wrappers, a $207 box for plastic packaging, and a $420 box for disposable gloves. Though these prices account for the box, shipping to and from the recycling facility, and the actual recycling of the products themselves, they still far exceed people’s budgets. Additionally, many people are located too far away from TerraCycle drop-off points to efficiently engage in the program. Some cities only have drop-off stations for particular products, while other cities have no drop-off points at all. In fact, there are entire states that lack drop-off points for particular products. It’s no wonder, then, that the convenience of trashing a wrapper or a piece of packaging quickly triumphs over the often costly or time-consuming ordeal of salvaging the unrecyclable. This is something that I hope that I – and you! – can change.


Getting involved with TerraCycle may seem challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. While the affordability (or lack thereof) of the Zero Waste Box program may be difficult to overcome, there are plenty of ways in which you can participate in Terracycle’s free initiatives. To get started, I encourage you to figure out which of your household items have nearby TerraCycle drop-off points to determine if something you use can be recycled near you. Drop-off points can be anywhere from churches to malls to even some restaurants. If you can’t find any drop-off points near you, that’s not a problem either! You have the ability to register your own drop-off point in your community through a simple (and free!) four-step application process detailed on TerraCycle’s website. In doing so, you’ll not only be expanding TerraCycle’s reach to your neighbors and friends, but you’ll also be keeping common household items far from landfills – thereby embracing the environmentally conscious lifestyle that TerraCycle celebrates.


Similarly exciting are TerraCycle’s initiatives that extend beyond its recycling programs. In fact, the company’s website features a whole host of DIY projects that encourage aspiring environmentalists to explore the intersection of creativity and sustainability. From GoGo squeeZ footballs to pen cap bracelets, the company makes it clear that the possibilities for turning trash into treasure are limitless. And for those who do choose to get involved in the actual TerraCycle process, there are plenty of contests and rewards designed to keep people interested in protecting the world around them. By starting your own drop-off point and shipping collected products to TerraCycle, you can earn points that can be redeemed towards worthy environmental and social causes. Among them: 1 point can remove two pounds of atmospheric carbon, 100 points can assist plastic-collectors in India, and 300 points can go towards Australian wildfire recovery efforts. As such, participating in TerraCycle means much more than simply lessening landfill waste – it means empowering other global citizens who are disproportionately affected by environmental issues, and supporting the environmental causes that we all hold so dear.


Amidst our growing landfills and overflowing dumpsters, TerraCycle’s willingness to redefine “trash” has shown me – and I hope you as well! – that there really is hope for a greener future. A trailblazer in the waste-management industry, the organization continues to challenge the conventional boundaries of recycling in groundbreaking ways, bringing a second life to items that we would otherwise so quickly discard. Despite that its current scope is largely limited by issues of inaccessibility or lack of awareness, it is our responsibility to educate our peers about its ambitious vision and encourage them to join the movement however they can. The only question left to ask is, if TerraCycle has already made strides in transforming the unrecyclable, then why don’t we start doing the same?

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