How We Recycle

TerraCycle is unlike traditional municipal recyclers, as we are focused on a wide range of waste streams that are typically not locally recyclable.

Our process starts with our R&D team — in-house scientists and material application specialists who work across our various offices and in collaboration with leading universities — who analyse the materials to determine the right way to process it into new materials. This includes how to break down the waste, separate it into its building blocks, and then recycle those materials for new applications.

Once R&D is complete and a recycling program is live, our Materials team builds an active supply chain for collection, sortation, recycling and end markets. To stay ahead of packaging innovations and changing technology, we leverage a wide network of third party logistics, sorting, and processing capabilities to bring our solutions to life.

R&D & REGULATORY REVIEW

TerraCycle does extensive foundational development to assess the materials we are planning to receive and recycle:

  • Regulatory: We review local, regional, and national regulations to confirm how each item in the accepted waste list can be safely collected, shipped, and/or stored in each market.
  • Technical Recyclability: We assess the material composition of the accepted waste to determine how the material needs be sorted, processed, and converted into a usable raw material for recycled product manufacturing.
  • Practical Recyclability: We layer on real-world factors (like contamination levels or vendor and equipment limitations) to confirm that we have a viable supply chain to recycle.

TerraCycle's Global R&D Headquarters is based in the Rutgers University EcoComplex, a research hub for environmental and renewable energy industries

RECEIPT & CHECK-IN

Shipments of waste are sent to one of our local TerraCycle Material Recovery Facilities (MRF), which are located in the same country where the waste originates. Currently, TerraCycle operates in 21 countries and has more than 35 Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) worldwide.

When a shipment from a collector arrives at one of our MRFs, we scan it to record the shipment information, date, weight and what material it contained.

TerraCycle MRFs are specialised sites that receive waste, record data, manually separate dissimilar materials (where applicable), and aggregate materials for recycling.

SORTATION & AGGREGATION

We sort materials based on material characteristics and composition, using an array of techniques. Similar materials are then aggregated to reach minimum volume thresholds for further processing.

We use a wide variety of sorting technologies, including manual sortation, size separation, sink/float, optical, air density, gravity, magnetic, and more, in order to route material downstream for proper processing and handling.

Incineration (or any other form of converting waste to energy) is avoided and never used as an end-of-life solution for anything that we guarantee to be recycled; all accepted items are listed on our program pages. We only use waste-to-energy for the small percentage of material that we receive that is non-compliant (i.e. materials that the program is not intended to collect) or materials legally required to be processed in this manner (i.e. medical waste), and make every effort to recycle non-compliant materials that could be accepted in other programs.

These images, shot in one of TerraCycle’s MRFs, show team members consolidating the newly sorted materials into a bulk format in preparation for processing.

CLEANING & PROCESSING

Once sorted by category, the different material types are cleaned and then sent to third-party partners that process the materials into usable forms.

For example, metals and aluminium are shredded and smelted into metal sheeting, ingots, or bar stock. Glass is crushed and melted to be used in new glass bottles (if clear), or brick, cement or concrete applications (if coloured). Rubber is generally cryo-milled to freeze, then size-reduced into a powdered state for flooring applications. Organics are composted or used in industrial and commercial fertilisers.

Plastics are the largest category of material we collect through our programs. These materials are size-reduced (made smaller by being shredded or ground), then melted and reformatted into pellets, flakes, or a powder format.

We strictly control the movement of materials through each part of the recycling process to maintain a recycling chain of custody. This allows us to track and confirm where materials were sent and why.

TerraCycle team members preparing material for recycling. TerraCycle works with a network of third party vendors (who are pre-qualified and onboarded by our Materials team) to ensure that all waste is processed.

RECYCLED PRODUCTS

After the waste is recycled into a raw material, it is sold to manufacturing companies who produce the end product and complete the journey of recycling. These end products may include outdoor furniture and decking, plastic shipping pallets, watering cans, storage containers and bins, tubes for construction applications, flooring tiles, playground surface covers and athletic fields, and much more.

Benches, playgrounds, and garden beds are some of the many end-products that can be manufactured using the recycled materials collected through our programs.

Our viewpoints on solving the waste crisis

Does TerraCycle use mechanical or chemical recycling?

In an ideal world, TerraCycle would not exist. Our programs are a response to the environmental problem of trash that has been growing since the 1950s.

We work with our partners on a journey to recycle their product and packages, integrate recycled content into their products and packages, design these items into recyclability, and enable reuse options through Loop. Our goal is to eliminate the need for TerraCycle recycling programs altogether by helping companies make their products and packages reusable or locally recyclable.

Our approach typically starts with linear products (ones that are typically disposed of at the end of their useful life and don’t have local recycling options available) and create a way to collect and recycle them. Traditionally non-recyclable items are not locally recyclable as they typically cost more to collect and process than the resulting recycled materials are worth for the recycling operators. To solve this imbalance, we partner with various stakeholders, e.g., manufacturers, retailers, municipalities, and individuals to cover the economics of what it costs to collect this waste and process it minus what the recycled materials are worth. We consider this ‘voluntary extended producer responsibility’. From there we work with our partners to help them design into local recyclability, integrate recycled content into their products and finally move towards more circular solutions via reuse and reduction.

There is no “silver bullet” to solve the waste crisis, except buying less. Many stakeholders need to work together to find meaningful and practical solutions. In an effort to do so, we sit on the board of Product Stewardship Institute (PSI); participate in and chair committees on the circular economy for the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; and support local, national, and global organisations on topics like developing extended producer responsibility. We are members of the US, UK, Canadian, and ANZ Plastics Pacts, an advisory Board Member for Sustainability in Packaging and the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, and much more.

While progress is being made at these high levels, there is still plenty that each of us can do daily. Before you buy something new, consider whether there is something you could reuse or repurpose instead. Try to support businesses that promote circularity: for example, brands that offer sustainable solutions for their product or packaging. The more we think of garbage as a resource, the closer we will be to eliminating the idea of waste.