9 Dec 2017

Closing the packaging waste loop

From This Way Up, 12:35 pm on 9 December 2017

How can you turn junk into cash, and encourage manufacturers and consumers to do the right thing when it comes to cutting down and disposing of packaging waste?

These are some of the questions preoccupying Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global recycling company trying to find other uses for waste.

It is launching a new project where consumers buy products from retailers in ultra-durable packaging that they borrow and then send back to the retailer for cleaning and refilling when done.

Szaky says the key is shifting ownership.

“That’s the fundamental change. In our durable platform the consumers will never own the packages, instead they will be borrowing them and they will always remain owned by the big consumer product companies.”

Terracycle collection schemes for things such as toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes are already a feature at some NZ schools, with the plastic cleaned and melted down to make other products. Other hard-to-recycle stuff like yoghurt and tuna pouches, food wrap and coffee capsules can be treated in the same way.

"Recycling will never solve the disposable addiction. It's just a Band-Aid on a wound that is bleeding and it's just slowing the bleeding," he says.

The project will see TerraCycle partner with already established brands, who sell a wide array of items such as ice cream, orange juice and shampoo.

"As a consumer this system will be embedded into the ecommerce websites of your favourite local retailers," Mr Szaky says.

"So imagine you're going to your favourite ecommerce retailer and now there's a button that says 'shop durable' instead of 'disposable', or something along those lines."

Consumers will be able to pay a small refundable deposit to purchase products in ultra-durable containers that will then be shipped to them, and once they have finished with the product they can ship the empty container back to the company, where it will be sterilised and refilled.

The shipping will be included in the cost of purchasing the product.

Mr Szaky says even though shipping items has an environmental cost, the amount of energy saved in reusing packaging - rather than manufacturing a new one - outweighs it.

"Using today's infrastructure, like today's shipping which is still petroleum-based, it's 75 percent better for the environment. And it's only going to get better, if we move to renewable energy vehicles and so on," he says.

"The best thing we can do as consumers is stop the cycle of extraction and recycle things that are already extracted."

Mr Szaky says the more consumers that get involved with the project, the more companies will understand that people want to buy sustainably and that it can be a profitable business model.

"The way to get these companies to move to durability is to get them to see how durability can be really profitable."

TerraCycle will be launching the project in early 2019.

It will initially begin in London, Paris and New York, with a view to coming to New Zealand sometime after.