Creating a Circular Economy with TerraCycle’s Loop: Modern Day Milkman

Wouldn’t it be great if all our products came in reusable packages so that once we were finished with them they could be returned and refilled? It would stop all our packaging waste from ending up in landfills or incinerators. Well this is exactly what TerraCycle has dreamed up with their reusable packaging program called Loop.

Photo by Mihail Macri on Unsplash

Incase you are not familiar with Terracycle, they were founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky. The company was founded upon a simple concept, “eliminating the idea of waste.” Szaky still runs the company today as the CEO and has found great success with diverting millions of lbs. of waste from ending up in landfills, all while earning millions of dollars in revenue annually.

The company has evolved greatly over the years. They started with composting organic waste from the Princeton University cafeteria, where Szaky attended school at the time, and turning that compost into fertilizer. This fertilizer was sold in reused plastic bottles, mainly because they did not have money for new bottles. Talk about challenges breeding creative and resourceful solutions.

Today they are mostly know for their recycling and upcycling efforts. They typically collect packaging and other household items that would otherwise end up being waste due to challenges with traditional recycling systems. Taking a look at some of the items they recycle on their website will show they are recycling unimaginable things ranging from paper/plastic laminations to simply collecting all the items from a specific room such as a bedroom or bathroom. They collect these items and upcycle what they can into things like bags and totes and plastic items are recycled into items like plastic lumber, pavers, benches, and bike racks.

Despite all of these recycling efforts, TerraCycle believes that recycling can solve all our problems, which is why they have launched the Loop program. The concept is pretty simple. You purchase the same products you love in a durable reusable container, which ships right to you in an insulated mailer tote. Each purchase requires a deposit on the robust package that is returned once you are finished, and that same loop tote is picked up at your door with all your empty packages. They collect your packages and take care of washing them so they can be reused and shipped out all over again.

Photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash

While I love the idea of reusable packaging that deters waste from ending up in the landfill, I think it’s important to understand the Life Cycle analysis of this process. I will say that they have been creative in the design of their packages. They specifically choose materials and designs that are easy to clean, will last for at least 10 cycles and have a recycling waste stream once they’ve finished their use. However, this doesn’t tell us if this is really more green when you look at the entire life cycle.

For example, does shipping heavier packaging back and forth cause greater green house gas emissions than our tried and true lightweight plastic packages that can be recycled? It’s hard to say. Would this comparison be between the Loop and typical recycling performance of standard plastic packaging or the potential recycling rates if consumers recycled correctly?

Despite all of this, I must give credit where it’s due. TerraCycle’s Loop program has found a way to address a lot of the shortcomings of our existing recycling system on many fronts. For starters, consumers love convenience (this is exactly what got us in this waste predicament in the first place) and this love for convenience means they often can’t be bothered to dispose of things correctly. This means plastic bags end up clogging up curbside recycling or in the landfill rather than being dropped off at the store. Or our recycling isn’t actually clean and dry before placing it in the bin leading to food waste contaminating large quantities of recyclables and turning them into trash.

The Loop program addressed this in a few critical ways. For starters, people are financially motivated so by including a deposit, consumers are more likely to make sure the packages get returned. Then by having the option to both have the items delivered and picked up right at your front door it is likely to speak to all our lazy sides. Speaking of being lazy, by allowing TerraCycle to do the cleaning, it’s one less responsibility to put on consumers. This removes the risk of food contamination from other consumers ruining your hard work separating and cleaning recyclables in your house.

What do you think? Has TerraCycle’s Loop program found a better solution to our problems or is this just another rabbit hole that won’t make our waste any more environmentally friendly? Let me know in the Comments!

Daily Dose of Waste. Part 2.

The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is one crafted with intention. It is an instruction or hierarchy of priorities when thinking about the waste we create. We should start by reducing our production of waste. We should then reuse any waste we can. Once it’s served its purpose we should recycle anything that can be.

When we start taking a hard look at the amount of trash each of us produce, it’s easy to see that reducing our consumption is the best way to reduce our total production of waste. But at the end of the day, when we have the amount of trash we create laying in front of us, we need to dispose of that trash correctly. However, this isn’t something to be rushed and given little thought because things like misplaced recyclables can lead to contamination of an entire batch of recyclables.

As discussed in the previous blog in this series, the photo above shows 1 day worth of trash accumulation for me. Throughout the day, we make quick judgments about where we think our trash belongs. I would imagine you often want to reach for the recycling bin whenever possible, but the reality is that about 50% of our waste ends up in a landfill.

Despite our best efforts, most of us use products that don’t have much value and the cost to benefit ratio results in them ending up in a landfill. The amount of our waste that ends up in a landfill is likely inflated due to the contamination mentioned earlier. When you and I put items that don’t belong in the curbside-recycling bin like food scraps or plastic bags it can end up contaminating the entire lot of recycling. It ends up being too expensive for waste processors to separate the good from the bad and it all gets sent to the landfill. This is why it’s so important for us to be educated in what is recyclable and what isn’t, but we’ll get into more depth on that on a later blog post.

Separated day of waste

After my day of trash collection, I went ahead and separated everything into its appropriate place. I was refreshed to see that a large portion of my waste from the day could be recycled curbside, which is on the far left. Front and center you’ll see my compostable waste. We are also lucky to live in an area that offers composting so I was able to turn everything from my banana peel to my paper towels and coffee filter into a valuable resource. If you don’t have a compost facility near you, I highly suggest you start a compost of your own. It can be really rewarding!

Unfortunately I was still left with a good chunk of waste that I needed to go through store-drop-off for recycling or had to go to a landfill. In fact nearly 4lbs of my 8.2lbs of waste ended up getting sent to the dump. Things like the freezer gel pack for my meal delivery kit add up quickly, which is a reminder of my need to reduce my waste production.

 The upper left corner represents the plastic products that cannot be recycled curbside. These items don’t work well with standard recycling equipment and need to be brought to store-drop-off locations. Things like plastic grocery bags are a great example of this. But rest assured, that I reuse the heck out of them first!

In my next few blog posts I will give you much more information about exactly how and why this plastic is treated differently, the difference in all the plastic you see, how to tell the difference, and why its such a problem when we recycle incorrectly.  But until then, make sure you are thinking twice before tossing anything into that recycle bin.