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Is TerraCycle sustainable or greenwashing?

Recycling company TerraCycle says that it is “Eliminating the Idea of Waste”. However, when it comes to transparency around the impact of its programmes on brands’ overall waste, we’re left in the dark.

What is TerraCycle?

TerraCycle recycles hard-to-recycle waste such as crisp packets or chocolate wrappers. It also manufactures recycled products using waste collected through its programmes, and has a division focused on selling recycled raw materials back to manufacturers.

It’s been celebrated by organisations from the UN to the World Economic Forum.

However, TerraCycle is increasingly facing criticisms, including from NGOs who say that the company’s not as great as it claims to be. It’s also been the focus of a recent BBC Panorama investigation.

We don’t urge consumers to avoid TerraCycle recycling programmes. However, we do think it’s important to highlight how TerraCycle collaborates with brands in a way that might suggest that they are helping to solve the plastic pollution problem, when in fact those brands continue to be leading contributors to the plastic pollution problem.

Here we examine the main criticisms of TerraCycle.

TerraCycle collaborates with the world’s worst plastic polluters

The following brands have two things in common. Firstly, they all have links to TerraCycle. Secondly, they were named as the top 10 most plastic polluting brands in the world by Break Free From Plastic.

  • Coca-Cola
  • PepsiCo
  • Unilever
  • Nestle
  • Procter and Gamble
  • Philip Morris
  • Danone
  • Mars
  • Colgate-Palmolive

Terracycle programmes have little impact on pollution caused by big brands

The recycling TerraCycle does for big brands is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the amount of waste they produce.

For example Nestle produces enough plastic waste to cover more than 15 football pitches a day. We made a rough calculation to work out how much packaging has been recycled through the Nestle-funded TerraCycling programme, and found that it equates to recycling less than one in 25,000 Nestle wrappers.

The Changing Markets Foundation highlights how TerraCycle is mentioned in several brands’ sustainability reporting, but its programmes are regularly small-scale, or only available in a small number of cities or countries.

Terracycle logo

Are TerraCycle’s programmes confusing to access?

You might think that seeing the TerraCycle logo on a product means you can put it out with the normal recycling.

That’s not the case. (TerraCycle says “We have conducted quantitative consumer insights which show that consumers understand that the TerraCycle logo represents a private, non-curbside recycling program.”)

You must visit the website listed next to the logo and search for the nearest Drop Off Point for the specific type of product you want to recycle. Unpaid volunteers run these Drop Off Points. While charities and NGOs regularly rely on volunteers, it’s unclear why a for-profit company supported by various multinationals is relying on volunteer-led schemes. TerraCycle says these volunteers “have raised over $44 million globally for the school or charity of their choice in return for collecting for our recycling programs.” 

These volunteer schemes may improve recycling rates in local areas but there are no statistics showing how much recycling takes place in each location. TerraCycle claims it cannot disclose this amount due to its privacy rules, stating “You may contact any location and ask them what they have recycled.”

Sadly we can't compare its effectiveness to other environmental volunteering schemes because there is little data published.

Brands can put limits on how much waste they will recycle

Brands can set budgets for how much recycling they will accept through TerraCycle programmes. Once the budget is reached, volunteers are no longer able to come forward to set up Drop-Off Points. This can prevent people from being able to access the recycling programmes (for example, someone living in Keswick who wanted to recycle through the Acuvue programme would have to drive 40 minutes to the closest Drop Off Point, as it’s no longer allowing new Drop Off Points to be set up).

Accused of “deceptive” recycling claims in lawsuit

Difficulties in accessing the recycling programmes was one problem highlighted by non-profit organisation the Last Beach Cleanup. The group filed a lawsuit against TerraCycle claiming that its recycling claims were “deceptive”, and were not accessible or transparent.

A settlement was reached in the case, which contained clauses requiring that TerraCycle “provide assurances for every recyclable claim made by TerraCycle or its clients”. Brands implicated in the settlement had to change their product labels so that they did not say “100% recyclable” if the programme had a limit placed upon how much waste it would accept. TerraCycle paid the attorney fees and Last Beach Cleanup’s legal fees, though says “Neither TerraCycle nor the other companies that were sued by LBC admitted any liability or paid damages”.

TerraCycle says “This matter never went to court and we had agreed with LBC on the principal terms of settlement before the lawsuit was filed. TerraCycle took LBC’s claims seriously and addressed them quickly in a constructive manner (which included showing them significant documentation to substantiate our recycling processes in response to what they asked for) [...]  LBC filed this lawsuit despite already having parameters for settlement agreed to as doing so would drag the matter out over many months and increase legal fees for its attorneys (which in California, plaintiff’s lawyers are incentivized to drive up fees). In addition, without the actual lawsuit, LBC may not have enhanced its public profile in the way it has since this case was settled…”.

Large bale of plastic bottles

An expose found TerraCycle waste had been shipped to Bulgaria

An investigative journalist uncovered that a batch of recycling collected in the UK has been shipped all the way to Bulgaria. TerraCycle claims this was a one-time error and that it was found at a recycling plant – whereas the journalist says it was found near an incineration plant.

The journalist also claims that TerraCycle tried to prevent him from speaking out about his findings – a claim which TerraCycle denies.

How sustainable are TerraCycle’s own operations?

Its Zero Waste boxes contain first-use plastic and paper

One physical product TerraCycle sells is ‘Zero Waste Boxes’. Consumers can buy these and fill them up with packaging which is then shipped back to TerraCycle to be recycled.

However these are not reusable and aren’t even made from 100% recycled cardboard. The small boxes are said to be 73% recycled, and large ones 84%. TerraCycle does however say that its supplier is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

The Zero Waste Boxes also contain a plastic liner, which appears to be first-use plastic. This type of plastic – along with the majority of flexible plastics – can only be downcycled. Each time this type of plastic is recycled it degrades, and can only be recycled a limited number of times before it becomes unusable.

Zero-waste boxes cost over £100

Zero Waste boxes cost between £100-£374 per box, which is unaffordable to many individuals or households. Perhaps the cost is reasonable however when you think about how much packaging they can hold. For example, its large Candy and Snack Wrapper can hold 4,100 wrappers – which would likely take years to fill.

TerraCycle’s Loop scheme could have a positive impact

While its brand-funded recycling programmes leave much to be desired, its Loop scheme looks more hopeful.

TerraCycle’s Loop Scheme involves creating reusable packaging for brands, so consumers can just give it back when they’re done with it and the packaging will be used again. Tesco partnered with Loop to enable customers to buy products from participating brands, and return the packaging to the store to be recycled. This was only piloted in 10 Tesco stores, and now appears to have ceased. 88 brands including Persil (Unilever), Fever-Tree, Tetley (Tata) and BrewDog have signed up to Loop.

The Loop scheme eliminates waste, as opposed to just downcycling it. This is significant because, while brands that fund a recycling programme are permitted to keep using vast quantities of first use plastic, the Loop scheme instead cuts single use plastic packaging out of the equation altogether. If widely adopted this could end up changing the whole culture around packaging.

Over 400 organisations, from Greenpeace, to the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Women's Institute, are calling on polluting brands to commit to "transparent, ambitious and accountable reuse and refill systems".

The time is therefore ripe for a reuse scheme like Loop to scale up and replace low impact recycling programmes.

Is TerraCycle greenwashing?

There’s no denying that recycling hard-to-recycle plastics is positive in itself and therefore we aren’t calling on people to stop using TerraCycle recycling programmes.

However, we think it needs to be acknowledged that TerraCycle collaborates with brands in a way that helps it appear as though they are helping to solve the plastic pollution problem, when in fact those brands continue to be leading contributors to the plastic pollution problem.

TerraCycle recycling projects don’t change this fact.

TerraCycle provides brands with marketing services to promote the fact they are involved in a TerraCycle recycling programme (take a look at its Head & Shoulders partnership below).

If TerraCycle required brands to state what percentage of its overall packaging ends up being recycled, versus in landfill or incineration, this could mitigate the risk of TerraCycle programmes being used as a tool for corporate greenwash.

TerraCycle says it does not have access to data that shows what percentage of the brands it works with’s overall waste is recycled because “brands do not share their sales with us” and that in order to access this figure it is necessary to contact brands directly.

Without transparent information about brands’ overall waste and recycling, we believe there is a risk that TerraCycle programmes could result in consumers believing that brands’ recycling programmes are having more of an impact than they actually are – the definition of greenwashing.

Case study: Head & Shoulders

Head & Shoulders shampoo  is owned by Procter & Gamble, a top-10 plastic polluter.

In a 2017 advert for Head & Shoulders, the CEO of TerraCycle says that its project with the brand “is the most significant solution to marine plastic that we have ever seen in the world, but it’s just the beginning”. It involved Head & Shoulders collecting ocean plastic and making new shampoo bottles from it.

No detailed information about the results of this partnership was ever published. In fact, Head & Shoulders no longer sells the shampoo product whose bottles were made from recycled ocean plastic, in the UK (even though it’s still advertised on Head & Shoulders sustainability section on its website).

The advert also said that all of Head & Shoulders plastic bottles in Europe would be made of recycled plastic by the end of 2018. We haven’t found any evidence that its packaging currently contains any recycled plastic. Instead, it has a much less ambitious aim of making all its bottles and containers recyclable or reusable by 2030.

TerraCycle says “No brand we are aware of exaggerates anything about their programs.”

How you can demand more from TerraCycle?

If you use Twitter, you could tweet the following message:

"Hi @TerraCycle and @TerraCycleUK. Please start publishing what percentage of the brands you work with’s overall waste is actually recycled. Without this we're worried your brand partnerships could be #greenwashing @EC_magazine"

If TerraCycle isn’t the solution to plastic pollution, what is?

#BreakFreeFromPlastic provides resources for individuals and organisations that want to help end plastic pollution.

These range from corporate campaigning, to becoming zero waste in your own life, and pushing for policy changes.

We have had dialogue with TerraCycle in the making of this article and incorporated their responses where relevant into the text.