TerraCycle is different from your local curbside recycler. We develop recycling solutions for waste streams that are not typically locally recyclable.
What makes something locally recyclable depends on whether your local recycling company can make a profit recycling it. If the cost of collecting and processing the waste is lower than the value of the resulting raw material, it will likely be locally recyclable. If the costs are higher, then it likely won’t be.
The good news is that most trash is technically recyclable.
TerraCycle can recycle the hard-to-recycle because we work with brands, retailers, and other stakeholders who fund the recycling process. Learn more about how TerraCycle is working to eliminate the idea of waste.
Our process starts with our R&D team—in-house scientists and material application specialists who work across our various offices and collaborate with leading universities. The R&D team analyzes the materials to determine the right way to process them into something new. This includes how to break down the waste, separate it into its building blocks, and then recycle those materials for new applications.
TerraCycle completes an extensive assessment of 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 to be sorted, processed, and converted into 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.
Shipments of waste are sent to one of our local TerraCycle Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), which are located in the same country in which the waste originates. TerraCycle currently operates in more than 20 countries and has over 20 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 material it contains.
We sort materials based on material characteristics and composition, using a wide variety of sorting technologies in order to route material downstream for proper processing and handling. Depending on the product and material type, this can include but is not limited to:
Manual sortation: Trained workers separate and categorize materials, potentially using a range of tools.
Size separation: Waste is fed into a machine with screens of different sizes. Smaller items pass through the screen while larger items continue to the next screen.
Sink/float separation: Items of different densities will either sink or float in water, ready to be extracted.
Optical separation: Waste passes under an infrared sensor which records the light waves that bounce off each item and determines their composition. Items are then sorted with compressed air.
Air density separation: Fans create a column of air in which low-density items are blown out and high-density items fall.
Magnetic separation: Magnets separate ‘ferrous’ metals, like steel, from other materials.
Incineration, or any other form of converting waste to energy, is avoided. We never use incineration as an end-of-life solution for anything that we guarantee to be recycled (all accepted waste streams 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 (such as materials that the program is not intended to collect) or materials legally required to be processed in this manner (i.e., medical waste), and we make every effort to recycle non-compliant materials that could be accepted in other programs.
Once sorted by category, the different material types are cleaned and then sent to third-party partners to 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 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), sorted by type then melted and reformatted into pellets, flakes, or a powder format. Watch this video to see our recycling process in action.
After we recycle the waste into raw material, it’s sold to manufacturing companies who produce the end product and complete the recycling journey. 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, athletic fields, and more! 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.