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  • Writer's pictureRobin Ankerich

Sustainable Sunday - Recycling with TerraCycle

Why can’t I just send my plastic to the local recycler?

The system for recycling in the United States is broken. It was set up by the fossil fuel industry to make consumers feel better about purchasing plastics, however there is little to feel good about. If you want a great documentary on understanding the origins as well as the failures of the modern recycling system watch The Story of Plastic .

Aspirational recycling

You want to buy plastic and make sure it gets recycled, here is a list of some of the pitfalls that keep your efforts from working:

  • China no longer takes US plastic recycling and there is not infrastructure to recycle what is piling up

  • Plastic is not recycled but down-cycled

  • Once plastic has been down-cycled 1-2 times, it is destined for landfill

  • Plastics do not break down and will last for 200 year or more in landfill conditions

Why is glass and metal different?

Glass and metal can be recycled again and again and again without reducing the quality of the material and recycling glass means we don’t need to produce more glass out of sand or mine more metals. This is why I personally try to purchase food and personal care products which are packaged with these materials. If I cannot repurpose or reuse a container, I least I know that there are buyers out there who want to recycle metal and glass because it is cheaper than extracting new raw materials.

What about paper?

Paper isn’t as recyclable as glass but much more so than plastic. When recycled the paper fibers are degraded (shortened). These short fibers make the paperboard less durable and more susceptible to moisture. Often paper products you want to recycle are contaminated by food or oil (think pizza boxes) and sometimes paper products are printed with special inks, stamped with foil, or lined with plastic making them only recyclable in facilities that can accept these materials. They do exist, but possibly not in your area. If you must buy paper products packaged in virgin fiber boxes try to choose paper products that are from sustainably managed forests.

What is TerraCycle?

TerraCycle started with a group of college students recycling food waste into compost but has evolved into a publicly traded company who vows to “recycle everything.” While most waste streams only recycle plastic #1, #3, and sometimes #5 or uncontaminated paper, TerraCycle has found uses for nearly everything. If they do not have a means or buyer to recycle something, they seek it out. And in the meantime, supply artist and other organizations with the materials, so nothing ends up in the landfill. Over the years, they have started partnered with companies to help take responsibility for their packaging. One example is Toms of Maine brand toothpaste or deodorant – you can get a free shipping label to send the empty packaging to TerraCycle to get recycled. There are other companies as well; seek our participating brands ( They have also partnered with retailors to collect different types of material like Whole Foods has a plastic #5 bin in most stores.

TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes

But the other area that makes TerraCycle cool is that they offer Zero Waste Boxes and envelopes. These recycling programs run from specifically one item like: coffee pods, chewing gum, or cigarettes to their “Separation Waste” option where you can recycle ANYTHING and EVERYTHING from a room in your house like the kitchen or bathroom. Prices vary from how specific the items are (= how much work will their workers have to do to sort the items) and to the size from a mailer envelope to a large box the size of a small child. The cost of the box covers:

  1. Shipping to you

  2. Material of the box/bag

  3. Shipping back the full box to TerraCycle

  4. And the recycling process and sorting of your waste

So, if you look at the pricing and have sticker shock know that that cost covered shipping times two (Amazon has made us believe shipping does not cost anything – it does have a great cost). But it also covers the cost to recycle what you bring into your home and the equipment and processes needed to recycle it. Let that make you think twice about bring home a trunk full of plastic.

My Experience with using TerraCycle Boxes

“Beauty Produces and Packaging Waste” Box

Over a year and a half ago we purchased 2 boxes from TerraCycle. I had already reduced my plastic use in the bathroom to near zero, but Matt was still using most of how personal care products. So, the first box we invested in was the “Beauty Produces and Packaging Waste” box. It covered packaging (especially the squeeze tubes that most of his produces came in that cannot be recycled through typical recycling systems). The packaging box was slightly cheaper than the “Bathroom Separation Waste” box which would have also recycled his razor blades and even say your plastic luffas or bath mat. Our investment in the 11”x11”x20” box was about $100. That’s a lot I know! But break down what that box covered:

  1. Shipping that size of box to us – guess of $10

  2. A year and a half later we have only filled about 1/3 the box.

  3. Box cost after shipping = Say $72 / 3 years = maybe cost $2 a month to recycle in the end.

  4. Shipping the full box back to them – guess of $18 (probably more)

“Kitchen Separation Waste” Box

Our second box is/was the one we use the most, the “Kitchen Separation Waste” Box. It can be used for ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING brought into your kitchen, from plastic packaging to party supplies to medicine bottles and oil stained to-go containers. During this period of Covid-19 we have had to rely on this box more than ever because bulk bins have been closed in most stores. Things like coffee, rice, bean, and nuts which we used to purchase package free have come home in plastic bags. We are now on our second kitchen box. The original investment in the 11”x11”x20” box was about $109. Since then we have purchased a second, so I can tell you exactly how the cost broke down:

1. Shipping box to us – guess of $10

2. 13 months to fill the box = $81 / 13 months = $6.23 a month

3. Shipping the full box back to them – guess of $18 (probably more)

(Packaging we brought home with the interruption of Covid-19.)

Why is that cost worth it?

We must take responsibility for the trash we bring home and thus into the world. It is the same reason you clean up after a picnic. That plastic you bring home will be useful for you for what- 30 minutes to a few weeks? Well in the landfill it will be useless, polluting the environment for the next 200 years or more. When things that are recyclable like glass, metal, and paper are not an option, we as consumer are responsible to where that plastic will end up.

Maybe next time you will rethink paying 10 or 15 cents more to that more environmentally friendly packaging? You will have to pay up front or in the end. Do you want that payment to have to be your children’s children cleaning up the mess we left them?

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