Why Recycling Won't Save The Planet (And The One Change That Actually Might)

Welcome to Planet for Alla series that will empower you to change our world. This week, we’re teaming up with sustainable thought leaders to unpack five of the biggest threats to our environment and pinpoint accessible, meaningful, and heart-driven action that we can all take to make a huge difference. Today, we’re exploring the massive plastic waste problem with tell-it-like-it-is trailblazer Tom Szaky.

Tom Szaky won't sugarcoat it; the recycling world is pretty grim right now. Since he founded TerraCycle—a company that seeks to breathe new life into trash—in 2001, oil has gotten cheaper and investments in plastics have skyrocketed. Earlier this year, China stopped accepting foreign recyclables (more on that decision here), sending the recycling industry into even more of a panic.

Recycling facilities, like any other business, can't stay afloat if they don't make a profit. They collect a certain amount of recyclables from consumers, which they can then process and send off to an end market that has infrastructure in place to break it down. But when plastic becomes cheaper to make and large importers like China stop paying for recycled goods, the prices for these goods crash. "In that case, the only thing left for these recycling companies to do is go bankrupt," Szaky explains. Some facilities have started to send their recyclables to landfill in desperation, and Szaky doesn't see things getting better anytime soon.

"The garbage problem just keeps getting worse and worse," he says over the phone from TerraCycle's New Jersey headquarters. "Sorry I'm not being more optimistic."

The waste problem through Tom's eyes.

When the founder of one of the world's most successful companies in the recycling space shares such a bleak forecast, you know things are bad. Szaky, the serial creator who started TerraCycle out of his college dorm room, and his team seek to "eliminate the idea of waste" by partnering with brands and retailers to make it easier for consumers to send in previously landfill-bound household material.

Over the years, they've discovered how to recycle and upcycle everything from single-use juice snack packaging to cigarettes and used chewing gum. After collecting these TerraCycle-approved materials, consumers can then ship them in to the company, oftentimes for free.

Unlike traditional recycling programs, TerraCycle doesn't depend on foreign markets, and they've been able to consistently collect and recycle 1 to 5 million pounds of waste every month. It sounds impressive, and it is, but Szaky wants to do more. After being in the industry for over a decade, he's sure that the future needs to be less about recycling waste and more about avoiding it altogether.

"Recycling is like Tylenol: You take it when you have a headache, but there are better ways to never get the headache to begin with," he explains, leading into the company's next venture, which will make it easier for consumers to avoid single-use materials altogether.

TerraCycle is in the midst of fundraising for a first-of-its-kind partnership with major corporations like Unilever, P&G, and Nestle that will make it more cheap and convenient than ever to pick durable items over disposable ones. Though Szaky couldn't disclose details about the program, he did say it gives him a "glimmer of hope that we can stop this whole garbage disaster from continuing to grow."

How you can become a waste advocate.

"Focus on shopping differently. That’s what it’s about." Szaky's piece of advice for consumers may seem simple, but it's far-reaching. In order to stop playing into a destructive single-use market, we need to start supporting brands that are contributing to a more durable future. Szaky thinks that these are the four steps we should all take to become more eco-friendly consumers, in order of priority:

  1. First, stop buying as much.
  2. If you do need to buy something, buy used durable products versus disposable ones.
  3. Buy new durable instead of disposable ones.
  4. If you really have to buy disposable, think about how to toss it responsibly. While recycling rates of certain materials have increased over the years, they're still not where they should be. "We did a study where we put out in the train station a garbage can and a recycling can next to each other, beautifully labeled so there is no confusion possible, and 50 percent of people put their aluminum cans in the wrong bin. There’s no excuse for that." Educate yourself about what is and is not recyclable in your area, clean out all of your recyclables properly, and if you have recyclables but aren't near a can, don't just trash it! Wait until you get home.
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The next time you go to the grocery store, keep this list in mind and avoid disposable packaging whenever possible.

The grocery store is a great place to start forging more responsible habits. In doing so, you'll also realize how ubiquitous disposable packaging has become in our society. While it probably won't be possible to avoid single-use packaging entirely, you can majorly cut back on it by sticking to the perimeter of the stores and browsing bulk bins.

This little challenge will also push you to make healthier choices and steer clear of processed foods. Happy shopping!

Keep up with TerraCycle's exciting development in the waste space or consider becoming an investor here, and read up on some tips to help you become a more mindful shopper and craft your own zero-waste kit. Tune in to mbg tomorrow for the last step in unlocking a healthier world, and in the meantime, catch up on one of the biggest environmental threats of our time here.

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