TerraCycle: Eliminating Waste By Recycling the ‘Non-Recyclable’

The packaging industry is extremely lucrative. In 2009, the global packaging market took in over $550 billion dollars in revenue.

In looking at factors that influence the profitability of the packaging industry, the World Packaging Organization cites the following at direct or indirect influence: The increasing requirement for convenience among consumers, rising health awareness among consumers,the trend towards ‘on-the-go’ lifestyles among increasingly time-poor consumers, the move towards smaller pack sizes as the incidence of families eating together at the dinner table become less common.

As more women are entering the workforce, leaving behind them the archaic notions of the stereotypical housewife, they also left behind a void to fill for the role as chef.

If not mothers, who feeds us?


Someone had to fill that void, and it wasn’t by any entity that cared about our health or well-being. Industrialized agriculture, mass production, the fast-food industry, and Monsanto feed us. And they are coming up with more and more ways to package and sell us convenience.

Convenience in the form of frozen lasagnas, drive-thru burgers and fries, pre-cooked dinners in plastic boxes with bows that we throw in the microwave after a long day at work.

The Industrial Revolution was a response to a booming consumer population, and in effect, has helped sustain and perpetuate the growing population by offering cheaply produced and convenient items to consumers all over the world.

Convenience may be alleviating some of our day-to-day responsibilities, but we have larger responsibilities as human beings that we need to held accountable for. In this case, packaging waste from convenience items and their effects on our environment.


There are three main types of packing used in the manufacturing process:

  1. sales packaging – surrounding the product and informing a customer about the product
  2. secondary packaging – used to group a number of products together
  3. transit packaging – including items such as pallets and shrink wrap.

The growing cultural knowledge about recycling has helped to put a significant dent into the amount of packaging waste that ends up in landfills. But the main leader in maintaining the process of recycling is industry.

The paper recycling segment of the scrap recycling industry collects, sorts, and processes recovered fiber into specification grade products that were valued at $8.4 billion in 2012. These products are sold and transported to paper mills at home and worldwide for production into new packaging, office paper, tissue, newsprint, and a multitude of other paper products (yes, this means that someone is probably blowing their nose on pieces of your old Earth Science notes).

In the United States, approximately 76 percent of paper mills rely on recovered fiber to make some or all of their products due in part to recovered paper’s significant cost and energy savings. Paper mills don’t really care whether or not using post-consumer waste recycled paper is better for the environment; if the process of paying people to cut down trees in the rainforest and have them shipped to the US was cheaper, they would surely be doing that instead.

Recycling saves companies money.

The main reason most of our waste is sent to landfills and incinerators, and why few of our outputs are recycled (like they technically can be), is tied to the economics of waste. It is simply more expensive to collect and recycle most things than the results are worth, and it’s cheap—because we allow it to be cheap—to send waste to a landfill or an incinerator.

However, when companies take the initiative to recycle their own waste, it can prove to be a huge cost savings.

Some companies have programs where you can ship their product packaging back to their manufacturing plants after you’re done consuming. This way they can save money by reusing packaging that they’ve already paid to manufacture, and ‘do their part to help reduce their environmental footprint and go-green’. However, whether or not companies care about packaging waste is irrelevant if they are actually helping to reduce packaging waste, which they are.terracyclelogo


One company that truly does care about our environment is a company called TerraCycle.

TerraCycle’s goal is to help create a market to eliminate waste. They aim to eliminate the idea of waste by actively working to recycle the ‘non-recyclable’.


TerraCycle partners with individuals to reduce their household waste, as well as major consumer product companies, retailers, municipalities, and small business across 20 different countries. In partnership with these groups, TerraCycle diverts millions of pounds of waste from landfills each month.

TerraCycle offers free recycling programs that are funded by specific brands, manufacturers, and retailers around the world to help consumers collect and recycle hard-to-recycle waste.

Some of these free recycling programs include cigarette butt recycling, Solo cup recycling, and cip bag recycling. To participate in the free programs, all you have to do is choose the program you want to join, start collecting in your home, school, or office, download the free shipping labels, and send us your waste to TerraCycle to be recycled.

Through this process, you can earn TerraCycle points which are redeemable for charitable gifts, TerraCycle products, or a donation to a school or non-profit of your choice. The more you collect for recycling, the more you earn.

They also have recycling programs available for companies that are looking to reduce large volumes of waste, and other programs that look to target the waste from a specific product.

On TerraCycle’s website, they state that, “‘Garbage’ does not exist in nature. In a natural system, any waste generated by one organism becomes a useful input to another. For example, a fox’s droppings may fertilize a nearby berry bush whose fruit may then become food for a bird. The bird might then become a meal for the fox, continuing the cycle. Any outputs generated in the system are utilized, and nothing is left to waste.”

Culturally, we need to learn from nature and continue to work to close many of the waste streams that still pollute our planet.

TerraCycle has taken great initiative to help close the packaging waste stream, and has provided us with a formula to eliminate waste into the future.


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