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
In each country, shipments of waste are sent to local TerraCycle Material Recovery Facilities (MRF), which are always located in the same country where the waste originates.
When a shipment arrives at a dedicated TerraCycle MRF, it is checked-in, weighed, and visually inspected for contamination.
SORTATION & AGGREGATION
Using an array of techniques, we sort materials based on material characteristics and composition, then aggregate similar materials to reach minimum volume thresholds for further processing.
TerraCycle utilizes a wide variety of sorting technologies such as manual sortation, size separation, sink/float, optical, air density, gravity, magnetic, and more in order to route material downstream for proper processing and handling.
TerraCycle avoids waste-to-energy and never uses it as an end-of-life solution for anything that we guarantee to be recycled. A small percentage of select items are sorted out and processed through waste-to-energy and used by the processing facility directly and/or the local utility network. This applies to material required to be handled this way due to legal restrictions, non-compliant waste, or items that are clearly described in TerraCycle program descriptions.
CLEANING & PROCESSING
Once sorted by category, the different material types are cleaned, 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.
After we ensure the waste is recycled into a raw material, it is sold to manufacturing companies who produce end-products, completing 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 to fuel or energy.