Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in collecting and repurposing hard-to-recycle waste. The company also has played a big part in developing Loop™ – an innovative, online shopping concept challenging our reliance on single use packaging. In this column, Tom looks below the surface of recyclability claims and highlights the gap between technical recyclability and practical recyclability.
In the past 24 months, people have come to realize the scope and severity of the global waste crisis, be it from documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II or a striking image of a turtle with a plastic straw in its nose circulating on social media. In response, governments have started passing laws banning single-use items and mandating producer responsibility, and consumers are demanding change.
As a result, many product manufacturers have publicly announced commitments to incorporate significantly more post-consumer recycled (“PCR”) content in their products, as well as the bold claim that all of their packaging will be recyclable. All this by 2025—only five years away.
Communicating the vision is the easy part, executing a whole different matter. UK nonprofit WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) reports two-thirds of the Plastics Pact (127 companies representing a majority of all packaging produced globally) have shown no progress on the 2017 pledge to offset their contributions to plastic pollution.
As one peels below the surface of commitments around recyclability, it becomes clear most signatories are promising technical recyclability and not practical recyclability. The former represents the ability for a package to be technically recycled without factoring in real world economics, including the question of whether the processing cost will be higher than its recovered value.
Inversely, practical recyclability is the ability for a consumer to place that package in their recycling bin and have it actually recycled. This is dependent on not just the technical capacity to recycle a waste stream, but also a profitable and stable business model behind it.
Those familiar with TerraCycle know we believe everything is technically recyclable, having proven items such as cigarettes, chewing gum, and even dirty diapers can be repurposed into material for new products. But those items are not accepted through conventional curbside programs and are thereby not practically recyclable outside specialty systems like ours.
Noting here our systems rely on the financial support of brands, retailers, cities, and other organizations to function, the value of the recovered material is not enough to offset the logistics and processing costs of these waste streams in and of itself.
Thus, it is imperative the clear distinction is made between technical and practical recyclability to avoid confusion, maintain transparency, and continue effective work towards measurable targets for materials recovery and waste reduction. Claiming 100% recyclability for an item that will only be recycled if the consumer must go out of their way to access a solution is a mismatch, as consumers only understand practical recyclability, not technical.
Practical recyclability should be the only way we use the word recyclable. Everything else is confusing and misleading to consumers and even law makers, who are not waste management experts. Producers need to either focus on moving into reusable or recyclable packages with value to recyclers and produce highly separated material with a strong end-market, or pay the cost to collect and process them.
Technical upgrades are not a silver bullet, but a fantastic start to better resource management. Providing individuals the choice of products they can actively keep in the materials economy requires clear and practical definitions. To that end, organizations that endorse recyclability, such as governments and industry coalitions, should demand proof that recycling is actually happening, in practice and in scale.