Recycling the unrecyclable

TerraCycle offers one solution to big manufacture’s packaging problem.

27 March 2019

Taking the packaging city councils won’t recycle and turning it into new products, TerraCycle provides an increasingly popular option for big brands looking to improve their environmental reputation.

KP Snacks is the most recent company to sign on, describing the initiative as the first phase of its ‘pacKPromise’ to transition to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic film by 2025. For two weeks, consumers have been able to recycle nut, popcorn, crisp and pretzel packets through TerraCycle.

Europe’s largest savoury snack maker joins Hovis, which signed up in February, as well as Pladis, Pringles and Walkers, in addition to non-food businesses like Colgate and Acuvue that also have challenging waste streams.

“I’ve worked for Terracycle for eight years and I’ve never known demand like it, from consumers and from brands,” says Steve Clark, head of communications for TerraCycle.

Like many others, Clark attributes the sudden concern with plastic to David Attenborough.

“We’re on a bit of a crest of a wave at the moment, leading on from the whole Blue Planet 2 effect, and then there were various government targets for 2020, 2025, 2035, so lots of brands are out there now looking for ways by those dates to become biodegradable, recyclable or compostable,” he tells Food Spark.

“Working with TerraCycle is a very good way to start to work towards those targets, because now any consumer that wants to recycle your packaging which they can’t through local systems has a way to recycle it.”

How Blue Planet made consumers green

Statistics from several market research organisations have documented the so-called Blue Planet phenomenon. Last year, Mintel found that consumers believed plastic pollution was the nation’s most important environmental issue, while a quarter of those surveyed on the subject by Kantar Worldpanel expressed ‘extreme concern’ over plastic packaging, with 42% saying food and drink manufacturers should make it a priority.

Earlier this year, Ubamarket revealed that around 82% of the British public believed that the situation needed to change drastically, with one-third saying they wouldn’t purchase from retailers and companies that are known to have poor environmental standards when it comes to packaging.

Cost-conscious consumers also had clear ideas about the best way brands should go about enabling them to recycle better. Ipsos Mori analysis commissioned by Business in the Community found 80% of people strongly supported dedicated places to return used packaging, many more than the 39% who were happy to pay price increases for recyclable packaging.

The rising popularity of TerraCycle as a solution is in part down to the fact that it provides a complementary way for consumers to get rid of difficult-to-recycle items like crisp cans, while allowing businesses some breathing room as they consider options for changing the material used to make their product packaging.

This isn’t free, mind you. “The economics for most of this waste doesn’t work on its own, and that’s why they’re not recycled by your council,” notes Clark.

He cites bread bags, which aren’t collected by municipal bodies because the cost to do so is more than the end material is worth. With TerraCycle, companies essentially cover the shortfall in the funding gap as part of the deal.

So how does it work?

“If a brand has got a type of waste that you can’t recycle, that’s where the conversation starts really,” says Clark.

From there, Terracycle’s in-house R&D team looks into exactly what is in the packaging and what processes would be needed to recycle it. They then find businesses who have the capability to use the material.

“We don’t own any manufacturing or processing facilities, we use best practice partners,” explains Clark. “Depending on the type of waste and the type of polymers it is, it’ll go off to different locations in the UK to be processed.”

Broadly speaking, items fall into two areas: flexibles (e.g., crisp packets, biscuit wrapper) and rigids (trigger head, flip top cap). Products are separated out by polymer types, then shredded, cleaned and turned into pellets or flakes. This is then injection moulded or compression moulded into everything from outdoor furniture and fence posts to waste bins and storage containers – the idea being that manufacturers of these items employ these recycled raw materials rather than virgin plastic.

On TerraCycle’s website, a dedicated page is set up for each brand with a map of where consumers can drop off the packaging. Companies can also decide if they want to allow customers to act as private collectors, sending packaging in directly, as well as whether they will include similar waste from other manufacturers as part of their scheme – Hovis, for example, accepts all bread bags, whether or not they are made by the company.

“With most of the programmes, the public locations that we run are run by members of the public – people can set them up for their community,” adds Clark.

Everything is picked up by UPS, which then transports it to the TerraCycle warehouse in Darwin, just outside Blackburn, where items are aggregated until there are large enough volumes to process.

A global project

The company don’t just operate in the UK, although Britain may soon overtake the US in terms of number of programmes. The eco-minded business has a presence in 21 countries round the world, with about 20-25 projects on the go at the moment in its major European markets.

Within the UK, TerraCycle has launched more than 10 new initiatives since October last year. In May, it will commence a collaboration with Hi-Cone to recycle ring carriers across the country.

May will also see the first trial of the Loop system. In partnership with multinational giants including Unilever, Mondelez, PepsiCo and Nestle, TerraCycle will undertake to create the “first-ever e-commerce circular shopping system.” Consumers will be able to order products online from these companies, then return the empty packaging in a Loop tote bag, which will be shipped to the manufacturers for cleaning and reuse.

Described as a “21st-century milkman,” the system will test the waters in Paris and New York first, before coming to Britain in the autumn via Tesco.

“Consumers at the minute are very interested in what’s happening to their waste, what’s happening in terms of sustainability of their products,” points out Clark. “If they know they can now recycle a product with a particular brand, they’re maybe more likely to buy from that brand than a competitor.”

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