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 analyze 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:
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.
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.
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 aluminum 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 colored). 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 fertilizers.
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.
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.
In general, TerraCycle uses solutions that guarantee not just technical recyclability but also practical recyclability. Technical recyclability is the ability to convert material into a new usable format in a laboratory or demonstration setting. It does not take into account economic viability, but it is a prerequisite to practical recyclability. What creates practical recyclability for a specific waste stream is if a waste management supply chain can recycle it profitably.
Recyclers are typically for-profit enterprises, and so they focus on recycling waste streams they can make a profit on. For most products and packaging, the cost to collect and process them is typically more than the value of the resulting material — so while they are technically recyclable, they are not practically recycled at scale today. This is why TerraCycle has created an alternative approach to solving waste.
Mechanical recycling is where discarded items are recovered and converted into usable materials by breaking down their composition and turning them into something new. This is how the majority of waste collected through TerraCycle is processed. Currently, this method is the optimal way to guarantee practical recycling at scale.
Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for various processes that chemically alter plastics to prepare them for processing, either by applying heat, depleting oxygen, using solvolysis, or through other methods. TerraCycle uses chemical recycling solutions today in select applications, and we have made major investments into further R&D to assess additional chemical recycling solutions. We will not pursue Chemical Recycling methods that turn plastic into fuel or energy.
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 organizations 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.