How "green" are specialty recycling programs?

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This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on April 18, 2022.



Oh. My. GOODNESS, my friend
. This past Saturday we participated in the South Sound Sustainability Expo and I am feeling so, so energized from the experience. This was the first time since 2019 the Expo was a reality, and even though the weather was less than ideal the Tacoma community SHOWED UP.

The South Sound Sustainability Expo was actually the very first event I ever participated in as A Drop in the Ocean. Back in 2019, we launched this little shop on February 25th, and the Expo took place just a few weeks later. 

Returning this weekend to this event was so magical; reflecting on where we started three years ago to where we are now…we’ve come so far and we’re not slowing down any time soon.

If you made it out to the Expo this weekend, THANK YOU. It wouldn’t have been the incredible, cup-filling day it was without you.

And now today, in honor of Earth Week, I wanted to use today’s post as an opportunity to share one of my hottest takes in the sustainability space. And honestly, I haven’t really seen this hot take anywhere else, so if what I’m about to say resonates with you, will you comment below and let me know? I’d love to chat!

So what is this hot take of mine?

I don’t support specialty recycling programs.

🤯

Yeah, I said it.

So let’s talk about why.

What are specialty recycling programs?

Okay first, let’s set the stage. What exactly are specialty recycling programs?

If you’ve heard of TerraCycle, you’ve heard of specialty recycling programs.

There’s also Ridwell, which has become increasingly popular in the Puget Sound region in recent years.

Specialty recycling programs provide a service to you, as the consumer, in which they collect hard-to-recycle materials.

Some programs, like Ridwell, are a doorstep pickup service. You pay them a monthly fee, collect your hard-to-recycle items in their provided container (such as plastic film, textiles, and batteries), and they pick up the items on a regular basis from you.

Other programs, like TerraCycle, are a mail-in service. You collect your hard-to-recycle items in very specific ways and then mail your items to them.

TerraCycle also has some drop-off locations for a portion of their accepted items, and they also have some boxes you can purchase to keep in your home or office and then ship back to them when they are full.

Specialty recycling programs range in price point, with some being free to you as the consumer and some in the several hundred dollar range.

A Drop in the Ocean Shop TerraCycle Recycling BoxImage from TerraCycle.

What’s the appeal of specialty recycling programs?

Municipal, or city, recycling programs vary widely from city to city. It can be incredibly difficult to keep up with what’s recyclable where, and how.

Especially when we consider how difficult so many packaging materials are to recycle and how rare it is for many of these things to be accepted by municipal recycling, specialty recycling programs “pick up the slack.”

When we can’t totally avoid granola bar wrappers, for example, because our kids are always running off to soccer practice with no time to spare, a specialty recycling program takes those wrappers off our hands.

We no longer feel the guilt of using single-use packaging, because it’s no longer going to landfill.

These programs offer us convenience and a solution to reducing landfill waste. On the surface, it sounds like a win-win.

So why don’t I support specialty recycling programs?

I live a zero waste life and I have been since 2017. I try to reduce the waste that I send to landfills on a daily basis. So having a specialty recycling program at my disposal should be something I would support, right? 

Not so much.

What is “recycling”?

Recycling is “the action or process of converting waste into reusable material.”

We are taking something that was once considered waste and turning it into something new. Something usable.

But not all recycling is created equal. 

There’s closed-loop recycling, where an item is turned back into the same item again (think, aluminum cans), and there’s open-loop recycling - or downcycling

Plastics are always downcycled. A plastic bottle cannot be turned back into a new plastic bottle. Instead, it will be turned into something like a park bench or a sweater. This is great for keeping resources out of landfills, but not so great at reducing the demand for new plastic bottles.

We want a closed-loop system. That’s how we reduce demand for virgin materials. That’s the only way recycling will actually work.

But, the problem is, these specialty recycling programs are open-loop recycling. The reason the materials they collect are considered “hard-to-recycle items,” is because they don’t really have any value in the recycling market. 

Glass and aluminum, for example, have high market value. They can be efficiently recycled back into glass and aluminum without losing any quality. 

But things like plastic film can’t be. It takes a sh*tton of plastic film to make anything remotely usable from it. It’s a lot of work, a lot of resources, a lot of energy, for very little return.

So by recycling our “hard-to-recycle” items with these specialty recycling programs, we’re not actually reducing the demand for virgin materials. 

When you recycle your chip bag with TerraCycle, you’re not reducing the demand for new chip bags - you’re building a park bench.

A Drop in the Ocean Shop Plastic Bag in Paraguay

Who carries the recycling burden in these programs?

Recycling as a concept became popularized by the Keep America Beautiful organization back in 1953 when a bunch of corporations came together and decided that instead of packing their products more sustainably, they would pay a ton of money to create ads blaming consumers for littering and not recycling.

What this actually translates to is corporations blaming individuals for purchasing the products they were producing.

They knew recycling wasn’t a fix, but there was rising popularity in the sustainability movement that was putting pressure on plastics manufacturers and major corporations to do better. So instead of doing better, they poured money into recycling campaigns that blamed us, their customers.

When we look at these specialty recycling programs, it’s the same old story.

Corporations are evading responsibility.

Although TerraCycle’s free programs are brand-specific and sponsored by the corporations behind the brands, this isn’t actually a sign of corporations taking responsibility.

If corporations were really taking responsibility for their packaging and waste, they would be using better packaging materials in the first place that are refillable or easily curbside recyclable.

But instead, they’re continuing to use the same unsustainable packaging they’ve been using that has led us into this waste crisis, and “sponsoring” another company to actually deal with the waste for them.

Corporations make consumers do the work.

Not only are these corporations continuing to use their unsustainable packaging, but now with these specialty recycling programs, us as consumers have to go out of our way to keep these materials out of landfills.

Especially with TerraCycle, the programs are split up by brand. 

So let’s say you wear contact lenses, use Burt’s Bees lip balm, brush your teeth with Colgate toothpaste, and dust your home with Swiffer dusters.

There are TerraCycle programs for each of those things. But you’d have to collect each of those items in their own boxes, wait until the box is completely full (there is a minimum box size but I can’t seem to find that information without signing up), and then find a drop-off location near you for the contact lenses, request separate shipping labels for the lip balm, toothpaste, and dusters, and then mail them into TerraCycle separately - which you have to do through UPS, which means you actually have to drive to a UPS drop-off location…you can’t just hand a box to your mail carrier.

Yet SOMEHOW they’ve advertised and sold these programs to us as convenient.

Like somehow it’s easier for us as individuals to do all of this work than for multi-billion dollar corporations to change their packaging.

Nope.

A Drop in the Ocean Shop TerraCycle Recycling Promo
Image from TerraCycle.

The recycling programs aren’t always doing the recycling.

Ridwell offers a textile recycling program, which I was intrigued by, because I get asked all the time where to recycle textiles. 

So I did some digging.

Ridwell partners with an organization called Buffalo Export for their textile recycling in the Puget Sound area. Buffalo Export then bundles up the clothes, shoes, and accessories, wraps them in plastic, and ships them off to the other side of the world. 

(Quick side note - it’s not just Buffalo Export that does this. The organization the Denver Ridwell branch partners with does the same. This is a common practice in thrift shops.)

So again, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with this. Our unwanted clothes are getting another life. What’s the problem?

The problem is developing countries are inundated with our old clothes at a completely unsustainable rate. The average American throws away 80 pounds of textiles every year. We are sending so many unwanted clothes to countries like Rwanda, Ghana, and Kenya that their once-thriving clothing and textile job markets have become basically non-existent.

These organizations aren’t recycling our textiles into new clothes. They’re wrapping them in plastic and shipping them to another country to deal with - and these countries have already said they don’t want our hand-me-downs.

And then…we want small businesses to do the rest.

With the rise of zero waste shops has come the rise of expectations that these shops will provide TerraCycle or other specialty recycling programs.

It’s a conversation I see happening frequently among shop owners.

And last year, I was asked if I could offer this as a service to our EcoWarriors.

I think it’s a fair question, because we are all in a community together trying to do better for the planet. It would make sense that specialty recycling would be part of that conversation.

But I also think that we need to recognize that small businesses - especially small, sustainability-focused businesses - are already doing the most.

For example, here at A Drop in the Ocean, I’m intentionally sourcing products that are made locally by other small businesses, so that when we say something is zero waste, it actually is. All of our refillable products are totally closed-loop - there is nothing going to waste on our end or on your end. 

I’m delivering your local orders personally and offsetting every mile I drive to minimize my impact.

I’m only shipping your orders via USPS so there are no additional emissions associated with your order because USPS is already coming to your home every day.

I’m collecting and reusing boxes from friends and community members. 

I’m removing any unrecyclable materials from those boxes so you as the consumer don’t have to worry about it. 

I’m using recycled paper tape and recycled paper shipping labels for your orders, when we all know plastic is so much cheaper.

I’m paying for shipping labels for you to return your empty jars and bottles to us and then making sure those bottles and jars are washed and completely clean so we can reuse them over and over again.

I’m spending countless hours every week writing these posts so we can all grow in our sustainability knowledge together and do better.

I’m donating to ocean conservation and planting trees with every purchase.

I’m hosting a retreat to Baja Mexico every summer so we can connect with each other and share in our passions for living lighter on the planet and engage with nature and get to know our ocean conservation partner, Vermilion Sea Institute.

Small businesses are doing the most.

And yet, because these small, sustainable businesses are so passionate about sustainability, we expect them to foot the bill for us to be able to recycle packaging from multi-billion dollar corporations who are doing anything but the most.

We all want to do better, but are specialty recycling programs really the best way forward?

A Drop in the Ocean Shop TerraCycle Recycling Boxes
Image from Terracycle.

Let’s look at TerraCycle’s revenue numbers.

As I was writing this post, I started to wonder what TerraCycle’s revenue actually looks like. And when I found some numbers, I actually laughed out loud.

In a report from Resource Recycling in 2021, TerraCycle’s revenue comes from four different streams - sponsored waste programs, zero waste boxes, regulated waste, and material sales.

Sponsored waste programs are the programs that brands “sponsor” for TerraCycle to deal with their waste for them.

In 2020, the sponsored waste programs netted TerraCycle $10.5 million in revenue. This is a 12% increase from 2019.

Zero waste boxes are the boxes consumers and businesses can purchase to keep in their homes or businesses and mail back to TerraCycle when they’re full.

In 2020, the zero waste boxes netted TerraCycle $7.5 million in revenue. This is a 22% increase from 2019.

This means that individuals and small businesses are paying a full 75% of what massive corporations are paying to TerraCycle - and growing at a faster rate than the corporate sponsorships. This already seems skewed, but when we look at profit from these two programs it’s even worse.

In 2020, the sponsored waste programs generated $3.3 million in profit for TerraCycle. This is a 13% decrease from 2019.

The zero waste boxes, on the other hand, generated $1.8 million in profit - a whopping 45% increase from 2019.

This means that TerraCycle is on a very fast track to making most of their money from individuals and small businesses rather than the massive corporations causing the problems in the first place.

Oh yeah and TerraCycle was sued for misleading claims.

I won’t get into the details here because the articles written specifically about the lawsuit are great on their own. But in short, TerraCycle was sued last year for misleading claims about their sponsored waste programs and how available they actually are for consumers.

Here’s an excerpt from one article about the lawsuit:

According to The Last Beach Cleanup, consumers purchase the products believing they’ll be recyclable, free of charge, at end of life. But they often ‘find out after purchasing the products that participation in Defendants’ free recycling programs are closed,’ the lawsuit states.

 

Instead, consumers are offered options that come with a cost, and many consumers ultimately throw away the packaging, according to the lawsuit.

 

‘Worse yet, some consumers instead discard the packaging into their curbside recycling bins, thereby contaminating legitimate recycling streams with unrecyclable materials and increasing costs for municipalities,’ the lawsuit stated.

 

The suit adds that TerraCycle and its brand owner customers ‘are reaping the rewards of portraying themselves as environmentally friendly without providing any meaningful benefit to the environment or to consumers concerned about sustainability.’

So, yeah, not great stuff happening over there. If you want to learn more about the lawsuit here’s an article from July 2021 explaining what the lawsuit was for and another article from November 2021 with the settlement details.

Okay, wow, that was a lot. I sat down to write this thinking it would be a short one and then the rabbit hole of information overcame me.

So now I’m curious, my friend, what do you think about all of this? How do you feel about specialty recycling programs? Comment below and tell me about it!


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