Interview with CEO of TerraCycle: Tom Szaky

Tom Szaky - Terracycle

Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle a company he founded back in 2001 after leaving Princeton University, New Jersey. Terracycle has a mission to eliminate the idea of waste by recycling the unrecyclable. Terracycle has now grown to a global business operating in 21 countries and  are at the forefront of developing recycling processes and innovation to help reuse packaging.

INTERVIEW WITH TOM

Recycling in the UK - what are the current wins and challenges?

Currently a Resources and Waste Strategy consultation is taking place which aims to completely rethink how the UK uses resources and designing out waste and pollution.
The goal is to move to a more circular economy which keeps resources in use for longer – for that to happen, we must all reduce, reuse and recycle more than we do now.
In recent decades, the UK has been making slow progress on how it manages waste and resources. Recycling rates are up but mainly for the easier and valuable waste streams, and carbon emissions are holding steady. But there needs to be more ambition to collect, recycle and repurpose more resources, particularly the harder to recycle and non-profitable types of waste. The planet needs everyone to do more.



How does your partnership with the Body Shop work?

The Body Shop has partnered with TerraCycle by purchasing customised Zero Waste Boxes which will be used in 230 UK stores (and 672 stores worldwide across 5 countries) which will enable consumers to be able to recycle empty Body Shop bottles, tubs, tubes and pots which can’t be recycled at a municipal level.
The stores will collect the returned bottles, tubs, tubes and pots in clearly marked ‘Return. Recycle. Repeat.’ branded collection boxes. When full the boxes are returned to TerraCycle for the packaging to be recycled and repurposed.



Are you excited to be working with The Body Shop?

We are delighted to be working with an iconic brand like the Body Shop to offer consumers the chance to recycle their empty bottles, tubs, tubes and pots.
The focus of reducing waste at home has been largely reserved for the kitchen; food and beverage containers (i.e. aluminum cans, glass bottles, rigid plastic tubs), plastic bags and food scraps are a waste stream most of us interact with and strive to be conscious of every day. But the bathroom, where we take care of ourselves and prepare to look and feel our best, is filled with packaging that simply gets thrown away when used up, making it a category of waste that is often ignored.

So, it is particularly heartening that the conversation around personal care and beauty waste is now becoming more top of mind, the importance of recycling in the bathroom today making headlines for major news and lifestyle outlets alike.



How big is the impact of beauty product packaging on plastic pollution?

120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. Of these, very few plastic waste items generated in the bathroom (outside of say bottles (but not the caps or trigger heads) are accepted by most public kerbside recycling programmes and considered non-recyclable in the general sense.

So, most common beauty products and packaging contribute to the world’s growing plastic waste problem and, without adequate recovery solutions, are tracked for landfills. Burned, buried, or simply littered where waste management is insufficient, many plastic waste items find their way into oceans and waterways, compounding the problem with environmental hazards.



In terms of the impact on the planet, is plastic the worst material? Is it evil?

Plastic as a production material in itself isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the fact that most of these plastic items are actually designed to be disposable — used once, then thrown away.



Why should we recycle?

Recycling helps protect the environment. Recycling reduces the need for extracting, refining and processing raw materials all of which create air and water pollution. As recycling uses less energy than creating new virgin plastics it saves and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which helps to tackle climate change.



What plastics can be recycled?

As a general rule the plastics which are widely recycled at a National level / that there is widespread infrastructure to recycle are those that there is value i.e. those that are revenue generating. In the UK most council systems accept paper / cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminium cans and some rigid plastics like food trays and fruit and vegetable punnets.
Flexible plastics, small items and products / packaging comprising a mix of materials aren’t generally recyclable as they are harder to separate from other collected materials or because they cost more to collect / separate / recycle than the value of the recycled end material.
In terms of beauty products:
Everything technically can be recycled (as long as you can make the economics work), but there are certain aspects of beauty packaging today that are considered difficult-to-recycle and are not accepted through kerbside collection.

    • The black and dark plastics of many cosmetics are not recyclable kerbside. The optical scanners used to identify types of plastic at MRFs (Materials Recovery Facility) using the reflection of light deem black plastic unrecyclable in the current system. This is because black plastic does not reflect light. Thus, the rigid black plastics of many beauty products are not accepted by most MRFs.
    • Anything multi-compositional or multimaterial - The thin, flexible stand-up pouches that hold shampoo, bubble bath, lotions and gels are not recyclable kerbside, because they jam up the machinery and are considered too low-value to capture. 

Small items - Further, the add-ons and fitments that give these packages high-function (such as flip top caps, spouts, trigger heads etc) not only need to be separated from the rest of the package because they are made from different types of plastic, fall through the cracks of the screeners at recycling facilities due to their small size. The smaller makeup and cosmetics compact’s and instruments are not considered recyclable for this reason.

All of these types of plastic are recyclable through our recycling programme with The Body Shop.



What are the best ways to recycle plastic?

The easiest way to recycle is to check what materials / products / packaging you can recycle from home via your council. There is no uniformity across the UK though – some councils will accept different things to others. Follow the instructions issued by your council and include only those items in your recycling boxes / bins. By adding other materials, they don’t want you increase the risk of contaminating the whole box / bin full, so it doesn’t get recycled.
Then see what alternatives there are for other materials – some retailers offer take back schemes. At TerraCycle we offer a wide range of free recycling solutions in 21 countries around the world for materials that couldn’t otherwise be recycled.
In the UK this includes the likes of crisp packets, biscuit and snack packaging, bread packaging, baby and pet food pouches, writing instruments, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, coffee pods, contact lenses and even cigarette waste. You can see the full list here https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/brigades.



How does the process of recycling plastic work?

Once TerraCycle receives back the full ‘Return. Recycle. Repeat.’ Boxes from Body Shop stores the waste bottles, tubs, tubes and pots will be consolidated, and staged for processing.
During processing, the material will be shredded, cleaned, and converted into a format where it can be used for new product manufacturing. In this specific case, the resulting format is usually a pellet that can be injection molded into products like waste bins and storage boxes. Or can be compression molded into products like outdoor furniture and plastic lumber.



Which plastic bottles are recyclable? And how can we tell the difference?

Drinks bottles are widely recycled and you can leave the caps on.
In terms of beauty products like shampoo, soap, body wash etc – for plastic bottles they can generally be recycled but remember to take off any trigger heads or flip top lids as these are made from a different material. Leaving them on would mean the bottle would be separated out and not recycled.
Be sure to empty and rinse any bottles though. Left over liquids can contaminate other recyclables and if bottles contain liquid they may not be recycled as deemed too heavy by the automated sorting process. Liquid can also damage the machinery.



How are plastic bottles recycled in the UK? Does it vary on your location?

Yes, it can vary by location / processor but generally the process should involve:

  1. An intense wash process which cleans the bottles, removing labels & contaminates.
  2. Once the cleaning is complete, the bottles go through a process that shreds the plastic into tiny pieces. The plastic pieces are then heated / melted and converted into tiny pellets.
  3. Finally, manufacturers use the plastic pellets to make new products like bottles, liquid containers, packaging and more.


What happens to recycled plastic bottles?

The recycled material from bottles (both drinks and beauty products) can be used to make new bottles and containers (although relatively few will) but more likely into the likes of plastic lumber, picnic tables, lawn furniture, playground equipment, recycling bins and more.



Is there a biodegradable plastic?

There are products that claim to be biodegradable bioplastics but the problem with them is they will only break down under the right conditions – those of an industrial composting facility of which there are few in the UK.
The natural environment like a forest, beach or even your home composting doesn’t provide the very specific set of processes that occur only if the microbes are in the right place at the right time.
High temperature, moisture and exposure to UV light need to be strictly regulated for these materials to break down. And even if that happens, they won’t contribute to the compost, unlike coffee grounds or leaves, which have a wide range of micro and macronutrients as well as a living ecosystem of bacteria and other microbes.
In the same way that everything is technically recyclable, authentic biodegradable bioplastics may technically eventually break down into organic elements; but if the general population doesn’t have access to a solution, it becomes meaningless.



What do the different recycling symbols mean?

Recycling symbols are now appearing on lots of everyday items to help us to identify how different types of packaging can be recycled.
The following site gives a good overview of what the various recycling symbols mean - https://www.recyclenow.com/recycling-knowledge/packaging-symbols-explained. Plus they have a handy post code search facility (https://www.recyclenow.com/local-recycling which will tell you what you can put in your recycling bin at home, where your nearest recycling locations are and how to recycle specific items such as mobile phones and textiles.

 

How big is the impact of recycling bottles on reducing landfill?

It is estimated that an average of 35.8 million plastic bottles are used EVERY DAY in the UK, but only 19.8 million are recycled each day. This means there are on average 16 million plastic bottles a day not making their way into the recycling bin. So if we can increase the number that are recycled it could make quite an impact on reducing landfill.



Can you share any interesting facts about recycling plastic?

A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, the first global analysis of all plastics ever made—and their fate makes interesting (if terrifying) reading. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment as litter.



Can you share any recycling tips?

Make sure you know the types of waste that your council can and can’t recycle.  Putting the wrong materials into your home recycling box / bin causes contamination and can mean that some of the correct waste will ultimately end up in landfill.  A quick call to your council or Google search will tell you all you need to know.



What else should we be doing to reduce waste?

Stay away from anything designed for a single-use – instead purchase higher quality, more durable items that will last many years: rechargeable batteries, woven tote bags or bags for life instead of plastic grocery bags, metal cutlery and ceramic dishware, refillable water bottles - wherever you can make the switch, go durable.
Keep an eye out for excessive product packaging as well and choose products from brands that limit their use of packaging as much as possible. It’s not uncommon to see products in as many as two, three, even four layers of packaging where only one (or none!) would have sufficed. For instance, instead of shrink-wrapped produce and pre-packaged supermarket convenience foods, go local and buy loose produce from a nearby farmer’s market. Better yet, buy your basic cooking staples in bulk and make more home-cooked meals.



How can you reuse The Body Shop packaging?

You could reuse the containers to house other products and liquids. But now thanks to the partnership with TerraCycle, we would recommend that empty Body Shop bottles, tubs, tubes and pots are returned to participating stores for recycling and repurposing the material.

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