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From “Recycling the Unrecyclable” to Refillable Containers

October 15, 2019

TerraCycle expands its business model with Loop, bringing the program of reusable containers for household products to additional states.

Unresolved yet pressing sustainability issues—the belated scramble to develop recycling markets in the wake of China’s National Sword, the growing prevalence of plastics pollution—have propelled recycling back to the status of major topic for societies. Industry, government, non-governmental organizations, and even individuals dragging their bins to the curbside are seeking solutions that will significantly reduce waste and increase the amount of post-consumer recycled content in manufacturing.

Those of us of a certain age still remember purchasing milk in reusable glass containers, to cite but one example of recycling and reuse. Seemingly overnight, that practice disappeared from sight, as reusable containers were replaced by single-use plastic. Are those days of sustainable reuse really gone for good, or might they be recaptured in a twenty-first century context?

For one New Jersey-based company, the answer to the question is yes: we can replace wasteful single-use plastics with containers that are reused. TerraCycle already boasts a successful business model, profitably recycling products previously believed to be unrecyclable, such as containers made of multilayered films of different materials. Recently, however, TerraCycle has extended its reach by introducing Loop, an initiative that has been expanded to include the northeastern states of Delaware, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Via an email exchange, NERC recently discussed the evolution of TerraCycle with Tom Szaky, who founded the company as a Princeton undergraduate.

“My original business model was vermicomposting (converting garbage into worm poop) and selling the resulting fertilizer,” Szaky said. “Since we didn’t have the money for new bottles to package it in, we went through recycling bins looking for used soda bottles.”

“To find a larger supply of bottles, we started a national collection program, which was the precursor for our current free collection programs,” he continued. “This was the genesis of TerraCycle’s mission, which is to eliminate the idea of waste. We don’t view waste as trash, but as resources with the potential to be converted into something useful.”

Today, Szaky reports, TerraCycle “runs collection programs in 20 countries around the world and in every state in the US. We sell the recycled material to companies who utilize it by turning it into new products.” By developing customized supply chains, “we end up selling the materials to all types of industries all over the country and world.”

According to Szaky, the idea for Loop had its roots in the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF). The official launch of the initiative occurred at the 2019 WEF. Loop customers receive their products in a reusable tote. After consuming the products, customers return the containers in the tote. The containers are then cleaned and reused. Thus far, most Loop vendors are major corporations such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo, Mars, and Nestle.

While manufacturers of any size are welcome to join Loop, “it was important for the launch of Loop to have large corporations on board, as they create the biggest impact in the smallest amount of time,” Szaky said. “Their participation in the platform sends a message to all other large manufacturers that this is the future of product packaging.”

During my adolescence and early adulthood in New Jersey, I worked for and then managed stores of a retail chain that sold its milk and other products in reusable containers. Reuse seemed ubiquitous at the time, and I asked Szaky about the potential impact of TerraCycle’s Loop initiative.

“Loop’s entire business model is designed to scale as fast as possible,” Szaky replied. “The goal is for everything to be looped – we are currently testing categories like baby clothing and baby toys. Another arm that Loop has started is diagnostics – looking at used products such as cat litter and diagnosing it to tell you about the health of your cat. The key question is: How far and wide can this go?”

Indeed, the reach of Loop may seem modest in these early days of its implementation. But if it continues to prove successful, it can provide a model whose replication across society would have significant impacts for sustainability.

By Robert Kropp, NERC Office Manager.

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