Non-Recyclable but Not Ready for Landfill

Waste management pros can turn to upcycling to divert useful materials.

George Chevalier

They say recycling is dead. In the current model with the economy as it is, I’d be inclined to agree. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When we as companies start focusing on how we can collaboratively increase our efficiency, decrease our workloads and create smarter customers, we all win.

That’s what an upcycling-focused products company does—choosing a different route than your standard issue, niche-focused, boutique priced green company. An upcycling company partners with major brands, most not specifically in the green space, to collect their product packaging, via brigades—individuals, community groups, schools, businesses and more, that earn 2 cents per item, donated to organizations of their choice.

When people have a personal relation with waste and see the direct benefit of their actions, for their school, their favorite charitable organization, etc., this has a powerful impact.

In another turn off of the typical green company road, due to low cost of source material, products are priced at equal to, if not less, than conventionally sourced products. The conventional wisdom that one should start at small, independent stores then build your way to bigger places is just plain wrong, in most cases. It limits the potential impact a company can have. Upcycing companies carry products at the largest number of stores, right from the start.

It’s when you get mainstream consumers seeing making more sustainable purchase choices as an easy, doable, and affordable thing that the real, widespread results have a chance to occur.

Creating Awareness

To do that, in the most explicit, unmissable fashion possible, teaming up with a major retailer is the way to go, especially one such as Walmart, in order to be featured in their HotSpot section—where its seasonal displays are. During Earth Month, one can find upcycled products co-displayed next to the original products whose packaging people in collection brigades collect to source products.

For many people, there is a disconnect between the products they buy and what happens to them after they’re done with them. Many have no awareness other than that it’s out of sight, out of mind. Some make an effort to recycle, but as we all know, the majority of products that are #3 and higher just don’t get recycled in most regions.

So when you have the results in plain sight—something you typically buy (Mars, Frito Lay, and Capri Sun products) versus this is what it could be made into after you’re done—many people’s lightbulbs go on. People take a more conscious, active role in how they think of and manage their waste. Especially when they realize that they could collect the product packaging they buy, send it back to an upcycling company and turn it into what they just saw on the shelves.

Recycling Streams

Have you ever had things show up in your recycling stream that you can’t do anything with? I know, silly question; it happens all the time, doesn’t it? What if they could indeed be recycled, and you didn’t have to be the one to do it? That’s what will happen as a process that has been refined for some time now begins to ramp up: shredding and pelletizing otherwise unrecyclable wrappers, then using them for eco-friendly products and building materials. Basically, with anything that’s injection-molded, upcycling companies will be able to make something with what was previously a lost cause, stacking up in landfills around the country, not going anywhere soon. The first efforts have been trashcans and coolers. I like the idea that what was in a trashcan now become the trash can itself.

You may say, well that’s all well and good, but how is its environmental footprint? We’re in the midst of a life cycle assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact of our new plastic products, and at this point the signs point to it using substantially less energy and costing less per pound than virgin plastic. So now you’ve removed the cost hurdle, and satisfied people’s increasing desire for green products, while maintaining or reducing your materials expenses.

An upcycling company focuses on and encourages its use of the full value of materials (i.e. the shape of the bottle, to be reused as packaging rather than melting and reforming), but in this case, recycling done on what’s not been recyclable, and either directly turning it into products with demand, or selling to others at a cost lower than they’re paying currently, this can be supported by all.

Upcycling: Moving Beyond The (Juice) Box

The ultimate aim is to fundamentally shift people’s perspective of waste, and while there has been a dent made when it comes to food packaging, there’s still a lot of room to grow and broaden that which we find new uses for. When everything has the possibility (and profitability) to be upcycled, we’ll be satisfied.

One of the first forays outside food packaging are Sanford pens. The name may not ring a bell, but what they make will: Sharpie, Expo, and Papermate. Look in your pocket, or your desk, and you probably have one or more there. What do you do with them when you’re done? Probably the only option you have had up until now: throw it away. The same goes for Elmer’s Glue, right? Upcycling companies will soon be changing that, giving a second, more sustainable, long-term option.

The goal is to design what is made with the recovered materials to be likewise recyclable. In a twist on the current brigade collection model, collection points will be placed in schools and companies, where these products are used in the greatest densities. In the case of Elmer’s, their existing program is being augmented, the Elmer’s Glue Crew, that has an environmental education component to it.

Imagine what would happen when you take the abstract idea of sustainability and connect it with something that school kids see every day. With that connection made, there’s room and interest in exploring further.

When you don’t expect people to come to you or to shift their behavior to meet your needs, and instead bring the ability to do it, right where they already are, this is a key to bridging beyond the usual suspects already motivated towards green behavior.

Some of you may be saying, “Hey, this is going to take away from the pounds of materials we collect, reducing our revenue.” I say now is the time for you to start (or continue) looking for alternative, profitable, sustainable (financially and ecologically) streams of income. People all over the world and right here where you are, are increasingly aware of and demanding greener sourcing for what they buy. It’s only bound to spread to other categories than what is prevalent now. Why not be proactive about it? |

George Chevalier is spokesperson for TerraCycle Inc., the upcycling company headquartered in Trenton, NJ. TerraCycle’s eco-friendly products have received a myriad of social and environmental accolades and are sold at major retailers like The Home Depot, Walmart and Whole Foods Markets. TerraCycle’s business plan and products made from waste received a Zerofootprint Seal of Approval, won The Home Depot’s Environmental Stewardship Award twice and won the 2007 Social Venture Network Innovation Award. For more information, visit