Can the Recycling System Be Upgraded?

Are things like Tetrapaks and Dannon/Stonyfield yogurt recyclable today? Yes and no. Here’s why: There are a few recycling centers that accept Tetrapaks and yogurt cups, but they are the exception. Most recycling centers do not except these materials, and those that do are so few and far between that only a small percentage of the American population can participate.
This creates a few problems: First, companies like Tetrapak and Dannon cannot state on their package that their product is recyclable since there is only service in a few communities. Second, a company like Tetrapak, that has invested millions to build Tetrapak recycling centers, cannot get any credit for their investment and continue to get bad PR for producing a non-recyclable product.
The reason this issue exists is that today’s recycling system is a reflection of the lowest common denominator in recycling. While many products are recyclable, the products that actually do get recycled are those for which the process exists in the majority of American recycling centers, and only a small percentage of recyclable plastics are recyclable nationally. There is very little incentive for local independent recycling centers to build the added capability since unless a solution is implemented nationally, the solution doesn’t get national marketing and people don’t get education about the opportunity for a new waste stream (or form of plastic or packaging) to be recycled.

Also since the recycling industry is fragmented with hundreds of independent systems running on their own, it is very difficult to upgrade the system so that it can handle more complicated functions, like a Tetrapak.
The current system is inadequate despite meaningful commitments on the part of the manufacturers. As I see it, the solution either requires federal level legislation and financial incentives to independent operators to support their upgrading facilities, or for one or more large companies to buy up the majority of recycling centers, creating a national recycling infrastructure to enact system wide upgrades. What do
you think?

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

2 responses

  1. Thanks Tom! Another option is to increase demand for the recycled plastic through new product innovations. If manufacturers are demanding the product, recyclers will figure out how to work with it.

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