Two years ago, Leticia Socal’s cognitive dissonance became too much. She needed to face what her career was doing to the planet.
Socal, who has a PhD in material science, had worked in the plastics industry for 15 years. She quit, started a sustainability blog, and began mentoring startups and students on how to reduce plastic waste. More than one part of her plan involved TerraCycle.
TerraCycle calls itself a “social enterprise Eliminating the Idea of Waste®.” But it might be best understood as the company that will recycle the packaging and products created by large corporations. Specifically, the stuff that you can’t put in your curbside bin. It recycles wrappers for everything from Swedish Fish to Entenmann’s Little Bites, plus a grab bag of other plastic products.
Socal tried signing up for some of the free, brand-specific recycling programs by TerraCycle, but they were full. “There is this huge waitlist. For some of them, I have been waiting for more than one year,” she says.
Socal also bought a $218 TerraCycle box for food wrappers, encouraged her daughters’ schoolmates to fill it with their Halloween candy trash, and sent it in. She never heard more about what happened to it, and couldn’t find much information on TerraCycle’s site.
Then she spoke to the woman who owns her local recycling center. “She was like, ‘I tried to work with them. It’s really hard. They’re not telling you what they are doing with your waste,’” Socal says. The recycling center has searched high and low for a facility that can process wrappers and hasn’t found one.
Unlike a plastic water bottle or milk jug, a typical chip bag or candy wrapper is a very complicated thing, involving different types of laminated plastic. “You have several layers that you need to pull apart,” Socal explains. “This is super labor-intensive. It’s crazy to try.”
Meanwhile, everything Socal’s local recycling center won’t accept has been piling up in her garage while she waits for TerraCycle’s programs to open back up … or for plastic recycling technology to catch up with plastic packaging technology.
A new lawsuit filed against TerraCycle in March 2020 alleges that it and its biggest corporate partners — including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Late July Snacks, Gerber, L’Oreal, Tom’s of Maine, and Clorox — are not telling the whole truth when they say their packaging is recyclable. It says the recycling programs are not accessible or transparent, and the vast majority of packaging still winds up in the landfill or ocean despite conscious consumers’ best efforts. TerraCycle helps these conglomerates “reap the rewards of portraying their products as recyclable while offering no corresponding benefit to the environment or to consumers concerned about sustainability,” according to the suit. The suit also says that TerraCycle has provided no hard proof that it is recycling what it says it is. (The brands named in the suit declined to comment, citing pending litigation, except Gerber, which said it “stands behind all of our claims around recyclability.”)
Environmental advocates believe TerraCycle’s core business is actually just providing greenwashing services to corporations that want to look like they are doing something about plastic waste. In fact, they believe these corporations are making and selling ever more disposable plastic products — and then making it your problem instead of theirs.
TerraCycle will take your old cigarette butts. It will take your used Barilla Ready Pasta packets. It’ll take your Bausch + Lomb contact lens cases, beer-scented Solo cups, and L.O.L. Surprise! doll accessories.
It says that it can recycle them all, and it will do it for free.
TerraCycle claims to make the unrecyclable recyclable, and businesses (and consumers) love the company for it. It was included in Time’s 2021 list of the world’s 100 most influential companies. During the pandemic, the boxes it sells to consumers saw double-digit sales growth.
TerraCycle’s Hungarian-born founder Tom Szaky looks like your typical hippie entrepreneur, with shaggy brown hair and a beard. We spoke over Zoom, him beaming in from a large office space lined with curtains made of empty plastic water bottles. He founded TerraCycle in 2001 while a first-year student at Princeton. At first, he collected food waste and sold the compost to local businesses. Later he pivoted to processing packaging, and in 2007 got his first brand partners — Honest Tea, Stonyfield Farm, and Clif Bar — which paid TerraCycle to set up collection points for their packaging. Since then, TerraCycle has expanded globally and has partnered with more than 500 brands for all sorts of stuff, including Teva for its sandals and both Hasbro and Mattel for their toys.
The business world is ready for a solution to plastic waste. With factoids like “By 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish,” videos of marine life being strangled, and news stories about dead whales full of plastic zinging around the internet, companies have been under increasing pressure from consumers and governments to do something about the global plastic pollution problem.
Szaky’s pitch is that our recycling system is broken. Because it’s increasingly labor intensive to recycle our complicated modern packaging, and because China stopped accepting most waste from the US in 2018, it has become less and less profitable to collect and recycle disposable products. Many municipalities are finding they can’t afford to do anything but throw it all in the landfill or incinerate it.
Szaky’s solution is to get corporations and consumers to pay for it.
Here’s how it works: Once corporations partner with TerraCycle and pay a fee (the cost of which neither TerraCycle nor its partners have revealed), they can tell consumers on their websites and on their packaging that it is recyclable through TerraCycle. Consumers, schools, and businesses are encouraged to sign up for each free recycling program separately at TerraCycle’s website. For each program they are approved for, they receive a shipping label or collection container. They fill it with the specified waste from the sponsoring brand and send it in for recycling. Some brands send a few cents per item to charity as an incentive.
TerraCycle then pays plastic manufacturers in the US to recycle these products. Szaky says the wrappers, for example, are melted down and extruded into a copolymer that TerraCycle then sells to American manufacturers of products like garbage cans, Frisbees, benches, and shipping pallets — bulky things that don’t need precision-molded, high-quality virgin plastic. (Though many would consider this downcycling, not recycling.) It was in the negative by $1.1 million in 2020 on this part of its business.
Participating in a TerraCycle recycling program is not that easy, though. To recycle your used Honest Kids drink pouches or K-Y Jelly tubes for free, you have to either find a local drop-off site (which might be too far away) or sign up to receive mailing materials at TerraCycle’s website (an option that often involves a months-long waitlist).
If you can get a shipping label, you then need to save up, clean, and separate your spent packaging and take it to UPS to be shipped off to the company’s warehouse in New Jersey. TerraCycle encourages you to wait until you have a certain weight of trash to send off, to keep the emissions of shipping down. So, you need to either go through a lot of K-Y Jelly, for example, or find other people passionate enough about plastic waste to save their tubes and give them all to you.
Szaky defends TerraCycle’s limits by saying that it gives access to recycling to all consumers who want to recycle items and make the effort to do so. But for some programs, like Gillette razor blades, there aren’t even public drop-off locations in Brooklyn, one of the most dense (and self-consciously sustainable) areas in the US — everything is registered at apartment addresses. Szaky says the lack of locations is because Gillette’s program is only a year old and that not enough people have signed up to set up collection points yet. But that again puts the onus on consumers instead of Gillette to set up and run collection points on their own time. Gillette’s program is really only “free” if you consider everyone’s time and labor worthless.
If TerraCycle’s free, corporate-sponsored program isn’t available for a given product, TerraCycle will sell you a container that you can fill according to the box’s theme — toys, hair salon waste, and kitchen waste are a few of the dozens of categories — and ship to TerraCycle. If you want to keep going, you then need to buy another box. These boxes are not cheap. The bestselling small all-in-one box, which will take pretty much anything and measures 11 x 11 x 20 inches, costs $199 — prohibitively expensive for all but the most privileged and committed consumers.
And yet, consumer boxes count for a not-insignificant part of TerraCycle’s revenue. In 2020, according to TerraCycle’s financial filing in preparation for a potential IPO, its US division generated $25 million in net sales, $7.5 million of which came from its boxes. $10.5 million came from the more than 45 partnering brands listed on TerraCycle’s site, which means each company is spending what amounts to less than a rounding error of their operations.
TerraCycle has a similarly itsy-bitsy recycling volume. Szaky told Vox that TerraCycle, on average, collects 217 tons of waste per month through its mail-in program from the entire continental United States. The small town of Mamaroneck, New York, recycles more than that in a year. New York City alone produces 12,000 tons of waste per day.
Even for specific categories, the waste collected is so vanishingly small as to be almost negligible. Szaky says TerraCycle has recycled 370,000 Bic pens this year. That’s a big number, but it amounts to recycling just 0.02 percent of the estimated 1.6 billion ballpoint pens thrown out in the US every year. Two-hundredths of a percent is not technically nothing. But it is close.
This minuscule investment by corporations seems to be more of a marketing ploy than pointing to an actual shift in their operations. In other words, corporations seem to be paying TerraCycle to help them greenwash, whether Szaky knows it or not. A 2020 report by the Changing Markets Foundation claimed the largest conglomerates in the world, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Colgate-Palmolive, make voluntary pledges and support small take-back schemes as a tactic to take the air out of anti-plastic movements.
TerraCycle is frequently mentioned in the report as the tool corporations use to make it look like they’re moving toward reusable and recyclable containers, while at the same time they aggressively lobby against anti-plastic legislation. For example, the report says Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Tetra Pak spent between €300,000 and €1.2 million in 2018 lobbying against the European Union’s Single-Use Plastic Directive. (This lobbying effort failed; the SUP Directive became EU law just a few weeks ago.)
Szaky has aligned himself with the interests of these big businesses. “It’s much better to focus on and empathize with their goals — whether you agree with them or not, frankly,” Szaky said in an interview this past May. “Even if it’s as uninspired as ‘I want to sell more stuff.’”
He also has said that, because companies pay for TerraCycle’s recycling programs, they are “even more motivated” to improve the design so they can cut the cost of TerraCycle’s recycling program, and that TerraCycle often provides consulting services to brands that want to make their packaging more frequently recyclable. Gerber, with the help of TerraCycle’s feedback, made its squeeze pouches easier and less expensive for TerraCycle to process. These squeeze packs are not yet, however, curbside recyclable.
The question remains: If corporations can set a low cut-off point for how much they will pay for each recycling program (the largest programs are in the seven figures, which is hilariously small for a global behemoth like Nestlé, which made $13.49 billion in profit in 2020, how are they incentivized to do anything more than the bare minimum?
TerraCycle’s own employees have trouble with this business model. “Most people joining our company have to be trained ... because people are so mission-driven,” Szaky has said. “It’s almost like, ‘F**k you, you should be responsible’ — that emotion comes out.”
Environmental advocates are fed up. “I am a very dedicated recycler. I have never mailed TerraCycle anything. And I don’t plan to,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College in Vermont and former EPA regional administrator under Obama. “On one hand, I want to say it’s well intentioned. But on the other hand, I think it gives excuses for large corporations to keep using plastics.”
Let’s zoom out from the small impact of TerraCycle’s recycling programs and look at the question of whether recycling should even be the goal here.
“Pretty much anything is technically recyclable if you throw enough money, hours, and energy at it,” says John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director. He has been working with corporations to get them to phase out single-use plastics, and increasingly sees them turn to TerraCycle instead. “That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or that it makes sense from an economic or environmental perspective.”
A chemical engineer with more than 35 years of experience, Jan Dell has sat on the US Federal Climate Committee and consulted for companies like Nike, Gap, and Mattel on supply chain projects around water and labor. For those issues, she says corporations had been willing to make real and beneficial changes. But when she tried to talk to them about plastic waste, “they’d say recycling is the solution,” she says. “And I’d be like, no, that’s not possible. As a chemical engineer, I know. It defies the second law of thermodynamics. It’s greenwashing.”
Plastic degrades every time you process it into another plastic product; it can’t be recycled back through the system endlessly. It’s always downcycled, or turned into a material that is less valuable, until that too ends up in the landfill. Or, it’s incinerated, which can pollute local communities with toxic emissions and release greenhouse gases. Some chemical companies are promoting a new type of recycling called chemical recycling, where plastic is broken down into its chemical components to be used as energy or reformed into new plastic, but environmental groups say this process is just as polluting and energy-intensive, if it is even scalable.
For now, new plastic always has to be made, and old plastic will always end up in the environment. The only way to reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans is to make less of it. Way less of it. But the opposite is happening. Oil companies, seeing the writing on the wall for cars, are moving into plastics.
Three years ago, the company Dell worked for acquired another that specialized in building plastic manufacturing plants, and she was told her job, formerly focused on clean energy, was going to expand to include helping ExxonMobil build new polyethylene cracker plants. So she quit and founded a small nonprofit in California called The Last Beach Cleanup. Her goal was to stop plastic pollution.
“To do that,” she says, “I had to expose that plastic recycling doesn’t work.”
She started looking at the issue of what qualifies as “recyclable.” The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guide says that to put an unqualified “recyclable” label on something, at least 60 percent of people in locations where it is sold need to have access to a place to recycle it. If not, the manufacturer has to clearly emphasize to consumers the limited availability of recycling.
Dell partnered with Greenpeace to survey all of the country’s 367 materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort incoming waste to see what they accept. The study found that in the US, only #1 plastic (clear PET bottles) and #2 plastic (high-density polyethylene milk and detergent jugs) are reliably recycled. The rest of the plastic is landfilled or burned, or shipped abroad to less-developed countries, where it is also piled in landfills or burned.
Take polypropylene (labeled as #5 and used in things like yogurt containers and coffee lids). There are only enough facilities in the US to process 5 percent of what is sold, yet polypropylene products are sold in California with a recycling symbol on them. The closest facility that can recycle these products is in Alabama, 2,000 miles away.
Because of the industry’s expansive use of the chasing arrows symbol, as well as peppy recycling marketing campaigns, confused consumers now throw any and all plastic in their recycling bins. A 2020 report showed that some communities on the West Coast have plastics contamination rates of up to 46 percent. When recyclable plastic is contaminated by unrecyclable plastic, MRFs often have to throw the whole batch away. Only 30 percent of the most recyclable type of plastic, PET water bottles, are ultimately recycled (and are now the subject of a lawsuit from Sierra Club over the “recyclable” label).
“It’s going to take laws and lawsuits to actually fix this because unfortunately, the FTC hasn’t ever enforced the Green Guides,” Dell says.
While she was working on that project, Dell noticed TerraCycle labels popping up on store shelves, and she saw that the company claimed that it recycles 97 percent of the qualified materials sent in to them. She found that claim absurd.
Dell tried to sign up for the Late July chip bag program (a company owned by Campbell’s), but it was closed to new participants, as were more than a dozen other corporate-sponsored recycling programs managed by TerraCycle.
Szaky confirmed that the companies that partner with TerraCycle put a cap on the amount of money they are willing to spend on recycling. When enough people or locations sign up, the new participants are put on the waiting list until the brands decide whether or not they want to allocate more money.
If she didn’t want to wait for the free program, Dell had the option of buying an $86 11 x 11 x 20-inch snack waste box from TerraCycle for her used chip bags. Dell filled a small box the size of the TerraCycle box with plastic packaging, and the contents weighed 3.5 pounds. That means its customers are paying more than $24 per pound ($48,000 per ton) to recycle food packaging waste. Recycling household waste costs the government up to $278 per ton, or just under 28 cents per pound. It’s a bum deal (even with the 10 percent discount TerraCycle sent out last month in honor of Amazon Prime Day).
Dell waited nine months for the Late July program to open back up. “The FTC guidelines are all based on a ‘reasonable’ test. It’s not reasonable to expect that people are going to keep plastic trash all separated in their garage or whatever,” Dell says.
The participation limits were the smoking gun Dell needed to go after TerraCycle. If TerraCycle and corporations are saying their packaging and products are recyclable through a free program in order to incentivize consumers to buy their stuff, but in practice only allow a few thousand (according to the location counters on TerraCycle’s website) to participate in their high-effort programs before encouraging them to plunk down their own cash, in her view, the label “recyclable through TerraCycle” is a lie.
Luckily, Dell lives in California, where organizations can file “organizational harm” lawsuits. “Here I am, putting energy and resources into trying to fix these labels, spending my own money, instead of working on other stuff. And this group over there is doing the opposite, harming my efforts to be an environmental NGO,” she explains. California consumers can also ask for proof that a company is actually recycling what they say they are.
In December, the public interest firm Lexington Law sent a letter to TerraCycle on behalf of The Last Beach Cleanup asking for receipts proving they were recycling. Szaky says that TerraCycle does recycle everything sent in that is qualified, minus a few percentage points for the little bits of labels and similar stuff burned away in recycling. The only thing TerraCycle incinerates, he claims, are noncompliant materials that people send in that they can’t find a way to recycle. He said they are updating the website to provide more information on how things are recycled.
He has not, however, provided documentation. To several of Vox’s questions concerning overall numbers — like how much of each kind of material TerraCycle receives and processes, or what the average waitlist time is — he said that the data exists, but his team hasn’t calculated those numbers.
Unsatisfied with TerraCycle’s response, the law firm filed the lawsuit in March in California. It seeks to force TerraCycle and its partners to stop using the TerraCycle recyclable symbol on products that it hasn’t proven are easily recyclable by at least 60 percent of consumers. If successful, the lawsuit could render the more profitable half of TerraCycle’s business model — getting paid by corporations to tell consumers that they can recycle pretty much anything — a fineable offense. That would leave only the part where TerraCycle charges consumers an exorbitant amount of money to process packaging that corporations created and sold to them.
There was no press release, and the suit got little press coverage. Dell says she’s not doing it for publicity or money. “My greater goal is really to help companies truly make their products reusable, recyclable, and compostable,” she says. “The brands themselves know they could make simple changes to improve design.”
Colgate, for one, has started switching all its tubes to curbside-recyclable #2 HDPE and is open-sourcing its packaging technology with other companies. But the overall trend has gone in the opposite direction. Where we used to buy simple glass and metal containers, now we get mixed plastic-and-paper Tetra Pak cartons, squeezy tubes and drink pouches, beer cans shrink-wrapped in plastic labels, single-use sachets, and coffee cans topped with plastic.
Not long after the lawsuit was filed, around Earth Day this year, Taco Bell announced it was partnering with TerraCycle to recycle all its used hot sauce packets. Dell calculated that if 6.6 billion (60 percent) of Taco Bell’s hot sauce packets were sent to TerraCycle, it would produce 104,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, roughly equal to the annual carbon emissions of 23,000 cars. Of course, the idea of that many Taco Bell customers saving and sending back hot sauce packets boggles the mind. “It just is non-viable,” she says. “It’s not serious.”
Szaky sent Vox a lifecycle analysis that showed that TerraCycle’s collection and recycling of multilayer wrappers have a lower carbon footprint than landfilling them and manufacturing new wrappers from virgin plastic. (Though, experts say that lifecycle analyses have been manipulated by corporations and the plastics industry to make plastic look more sustainable than it really is.)
Greenpeace’s Hocevar put out a press release asking why Taco Bell doesn’t just allow customers to specify they want hot sauce on their tacos or have bulk hot sauce pumps available. “These companies are looking for ways to make it appear that they are doing something about plastic without taking the actions that are really needed to address this,” he says. “You can’t keep making and handing out billions of hot sauce packets and convince people that it’s okay.”
In a statement emailed to Vox, Taco Bell said, “Taco Bell is still collaborating with TerraCycle to determine collection mechanics, which will initially roll out as a pilot program. Taco Bell’s upcoming partnership with TerraCycle is an important step, but not the final step, in identifying viable solutions quickly and efficiently.”
If TerraCycle isn’t the solution, what is?
“I’m a strong supporter of deposits,” Beyond Plastics’ Enck says. Container deposit laws tack on a fee of a few cents on each bottle or can. If you bring the empty container to a collection point, you get that fee back. Deposits are pretty much the opposite of those pricey TerraCycle boxes, because corporations have to administer and pay for the collection points. And then consumers get paid when they turn bottles and cans back in. (In the states that have deposit laws, collecting these containers is the way some low-income people make ends meet.) More importantly, deposit legislation is effective — states with bottle bills have the highest recycling rates in the country.
But brands, unsurprisingly, hate deposits.
Szaky says it costs 4 cents to recycle each Gerber squeeze pouch, so why not just do a deposit system of 4 cents per pack?
“Many people, big NGOs, organizations have been trying that and failed, so no, I couldn’t just do that,” he said. “That’s an absurd idea. I’m not the president of the country. Could you just go pass a bottle bill right now?”
I started to explain that Maine had just passed an expanded deposit bill, but he cut me off.
“What state are you in right now?”
I tell him New York.
“Okay, go pass a deposit law on pens tomorrow. Why don’t you just do that?” (We had been discussing those Bic pens.)
I ask him if he’s suggesting that the only thing I can do as a US citizen to address plastic pollution is to buy a TerraCycle-labeled product.
“No, no, I didn’t say that. Sorry. Not at all. I think, as a citizen, you should first buy less stuff. If you do choose to buy things that have been designed into local recyclability, you’re not benefiting me at all. I think those are way better answers. Then buy a reusable pen. Still has nothing to do with me.” (Side note: Zebra’s 100 percent metal refillable pen comes packaged in plastic.) “Then, if you have a voice and you’re willing to go do it, knock on your lawmaker’s door and ask them to pass taxes and all sorts of legislation to do exactly what you described.”
As Szaky correctly pointed out, until last week, the United States was one of the only developed countries without an Extended Producer Responsibility law. Maine just passed America’s first EPR law last week, which will impose fees on consumer product companies based on the cost of collecting and recycling their products and packaging. (The industry group Ameripen, which counts Nestlé, Campbell’s, PepsiCo, and Tetra Pak among its members, came out against it, saying it gives the government too much authority.) Oregon is considering similar legislation.
TerraCycle’s claims that they can and do recycle almost anything could stymie these efforts to rein in packaging. New York City’s 2015 ban on polystyrene products was delayed for four years because a judge accepted the chemical industry’s promise that it would create a viable recycling system for polystyrene. It was only when a team of experts produced a report showing that there was close to no polystyrene recycling in all of the US that a second judge let the ban go forward in 2019.
“I’m not aware of any case where a company has used us to do such a form of lobbying,” Szaky said in response. “When we are asked or have the opportunity, we always say that EPR legislation is a wonderful thing, and deposit laws are a wonderful thing.”
When asked why he would support legislation that would undercut his business, especially when he has been considering an IPO, he said, “There are many investors who rally behind that, who say, ‘Hey, here’s an investment. We really hope you achieve your mission. And if we make some money, great, and if we don’t, and the mission was achieved, that’s awesome.’”
“I wish we didn’t have to exist,” he went on. “I have a friend who runs a great nonprofit that focuses on battered women in Mexico. Do you think he wants to be in business?”
“Don’t you ever worry you’re being used?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I absolutely think about that,” he says. “And then I’m thinking, they could spend a bunch of money on TV commercials that made you love their products. And if they’re going to use me to do the same effect as a commercial, I think it’s still better for the planet. And that’s fine.”
It’s clear that Szaky believes TerraCycle is helping, in a small way, address global plastic pollution. But his belief that corporations will fulfill their pledges to go plastic-free feels like a holdover from the 2010s, when entrepreneurs thought they could do an end run around the government and disrupt their way into environmental responsibility.
It would be better, however, if he wasn’t having consumers pay for this delusion.