Re-Imagining the Scotch Tape Dispenser Without Changing it at All

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely you recycle. You sort. You do your best (most of the time) But what about those plastic Scotch Tape dispensers you use? Most recyclers don’t take them. You don’t have much use for them, being empty. What do you do? Toss them in the recycle bin and hope for the best, or just toss them out in the trash?

We’d like to propose a different option, one we hope encourages other companies to do the same. Starting in September we will be collecting Scotch Tape dispensers from the public, giving them the choice of which charity 2 cents for each goes.

But instead of doing what we’re known for, taking packaging and finding a different use for it as is or sewing it like fabric into bags, umbrellas etc—we will be giving them back to 3M to use for the exact same use they were before—tape dispensers. This is as close to Cradle to Cradle design as we’ve seen, but without the need to radically redesign the product packaging. Or redesign at all, in this case.

We’ve often been labeled a cradle to cradle company since we reuse product packaging without the energy/resources it can take to recycle materials. But in reality, what we’ve been doing is upcycling , as the materials we reuse are entering a different loop, a different use.

Here, with 3M’s trailblazing commitment to this initiative, we can begin exploring the possibilities of what it means to reuse the same packaging repeatedly. We’re starting small, 25,000 dispensers collected from 1000 Brigade locations, but with some thought and working out the bugs, this could go much larger.

Who else is doing this?
One example you may have thought gone since the 1950s is the glass milk bottle. Dozens of companies are doing it, right now. But by design, these are mostly limited to a regional operation, since they need to be cleaned and refilled.

People have long informally reused glass jars for drinking glasses, vases, etc.

But I’ve yet to see a large scale, low cost execution of reusing product packaging. Wisdom would tell you that that’s because it’s not a good business move, but I would disagree.

It’s minimal resource use on our part, since our collectors are all unpaid members of the public and groups that are motivated by their being able to raise funds for a favorite cause, or simply by having a free way to find use for product packaging they had no choice but to store or throw away. Boxes of Scotch tape will arrive at our door, we quickly sort then ship them to 3M, to begin the cycle again, no new materials needed aside from the tape.

What’s your take on this? Do you think this model makes sense, financially, environmentally? Where else do you see easy moves to reusing product packaging? Where could it be done, with slight modifications of packaging? Would doing this be preferable to recycling? Can it scale to such a level that it diminishes or eliminates the need to recycle?

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

14 responses

  1. How durable are the scotch tape dispensers? Many of the reusable/refillable bottles (like milk, soft drinks) are made much sturdier than their “throw away” or recyclable counterparts. So the move away from them uses less materials. In your start-small test, I’d be interested to see what % are truly reusable. are they cracked or damaged? I know several in my home are.

    Recycling has an existing infrastructure. And consumers are increasingly developing the habit of recycling. So the challenge will be teaching them this new behaviour of separately collecting them.

  2. It would be great if company’s would give more thought to their product designs to make them more re-usable in the home.

    As an example the plastic Folgers coffee cans make great canisters and storage containers for the garage. My problem with them is Folger prints their labels directly on the cans rather than on a removable surface.

    If my garage door is open I don’t want passers by seeing row upon row of Folger coffee cans.

    I find my self buying two small ones instead of a large one just because those labels are removable.

  3. Those Folgers cans are more attractive if you dab them with leftover paint. I did that with the big plastic buckets I used to get from cat litter. Since leftover paint is toxic waste, that takes care of 2 problems at once.

  4. If TerraCycle and Scotch 3M really want to eliminate waste, why not get Scotch to make refills with a recyclable paper core? Mailing back dispensers for refill uses fuel and mailing materials, and many are likely to get broken. This really doesn’t seem like a partnership that fits TerraCycle’s mission or makes much sense.

Leave a Reply