It’s no secret that our recycling system is broken and, as we’re pumping more and more plastic into existence, in desperate need of an overhaul. But it’s not just recycling plants that are broken, but packaging labels themselves, which may just be sporting a greenwashed facelift. An investigation published Thursday in Vox details how one of the hottest names in eco-friendly, consumer-facing recycling, a company called TerraCycle, is being accused in a new lawsuit of doing nothing more than giving some of the world’s biggest corporations a cover to keep polluting.
TerraCycle has made a name itself over the past few years as being the connection between consumers and companies in the effort to recycle all our plastic waste. The company’s pitch, in essence, is that it works with brands and corporations to recycle things like candy wrappers, chip bags, pens, plastic gloves—stuff that isn’t accepted at most municipal recycling systems but that consumers still use in large quantities. Under TerraCycle’s program, consumers can either participate in free programs run by brands (a company will provide either drop-off spots for branded waste or a free shipping label for consumers to send back their used stuff, like Bausch & Lomb contacts or Teva sandals, for recycling), or order specialized boxes that let them mail different categories of plastic stuff in bulk, regardless of brand. The service is in demand: more than 500 corporations currently work with TerraCycle, with an endless list of big names like PepsiCo, Nordstrom, and Garnier, all of which pay a fee to TerraCycle and then advertise to consumers that their products are, finally, recyclable.
Browsing TerraCycle’s website, it’s easy to see why anyone who is eco-conscious might think this is a good idea. It would be awesome to just pop all the stuff we feel guilty about putting in the trash into a box, ship it off, and rest easy knowing it would be reused. The company’s offering for snacks promises that users can “recycle any brand and size of flexible plastic-based candy and snack packaging and wrappers”
When you get to the prices, though, it’s another story. The TerraCycle snack package box starts at a jaw-dropping $86—that’s a hefty price to pay just to have a clean conscience about eating Oreos. Meanwhile, a small box for recycling pens and markers starts at $140—another big chunk of cash just for a single household to get rid of their pens correctly. The math on these boxes is pretty telling: Vox calculated that TerraCycle was charging customers around $24 per pound to recycle those wrappers; the federal government, meanwhile, recycles household waste at the comparatively bargain-bin price of $.28 per pound. (Admittedly, a lot of the stuff in those boxes is incredibly difficult—and therefore very expensive—to recycle. But that’s still quite a markup.)
Consumers who may want to forego the big personal cost of buying one of these boxes and take advantage of one of the well-advertised free corporate programs also seem to be out of luck: Vox reported that a lot of the mail-in programs have wait lists, and many areas don’t have drop-off spots for branded waste. I was curious about these, so I signed up for a TerraCycle account to see what programs I could easily access. I was able to access prepaid shipping labels for a number of brands, including Swedish Fish, Barilla, Burt’s Bees cosmetics wrappers, and some Gatorade products, as well as the cigarette butt recycling program (I don’t smoke, but wow). But I was put on the waitlist for Garnier’s health and beauty products. Honestly, after reading the lawsuit and the Vox article, I was expecting a little bit less success—the system does seem open to at least some brands using the mail label system.
But the surprising ease of accessing to some of these shipping labels made me think about the actual practicalities of the process that I, as a single-person household, would go through to recycle this stuff using TerraCycle. Sure, I like Swedish Fish and may eat a packet every once in a while. But do I personally eat enough of them to save enough wrappers until the box was heavy enough to justify the carbon emissions in mailing it back? Maybe if I was a heavy smoker I’d want to save up all my butts and mail them back, but that also just seems... gross (and also, how on Earth do you begin recycling that?). Does giving consumers the technical ability to recycle things really justify popping a “recyclable” label on the packaging, if the inconvenience of the process is such a nightmare that barely anyone is going to do it?
That’s essentially the thrust of the lawsuit filed in March by The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit based out of California, against TerraCycle. The suit argues that the company’s avenues for consumers to recycle waste are so restrictive that the programs are, effectively, nothing more than an opportunity for big businesses to greenwash their products. The suit also raises questions about what, exactly, would happen to that theoretical bundle of Swedish Fish bags I’d mail back.
“Under both California law and the Green Guides, Defendants are required to maintain records supporting the validity of any environmental marketing claims,” the suit reads. “However, in response to Plaintiff’s pre-suit request, Defendants have not provided records substantiating that the Products collected are actually recycled and manufactured into new products.”
Taco Bell, which made a deal with TerraCycle to recycle its sauce packets shortly after the California lawsuit was filed, illustrates some of these conundrums perfectly. One expert who spoke with Vox calculated that even a small number of people mailing in their used packets could generate thousands of cars’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions in shipping. What’s more, by allowing a company like Taco Bell to claim it’s making an effort to recycle products like hot sauce packets, it gives them no incentive to change how those packets are produced or provide other options like hot sauce pumps at the restaurant or asking customers if they want hot sauce on their tacos. And even if the TerraCycle system sorted out all its problems—somehow made recycling these items less carbon-intensive, perhaps by setting up hot sauce drop-off stations at every street corner in a 5-mile (8-kilometer) radius of a Taco Bell—who the hell is going to go through all the time and effort to collect individual used hot sauce packets to bulk recycle?
The CEO of TerraCycle told Fast Company earlier this year that he started the company to “create a new business model for recycling” and help hold companies financially accountable for at least part of the waste that isn’t profitable enough to recycle on the normal market. He’s not wrong: The main issue with the way our recycling system works is that it puts all the responsibility on the consumer, thanks to hefty lobbying efforts from the plastic and oil and gas industries to squash any legislation that would hold them accountable while also encouraging recycling as a virtuous act on the part of consumers.
But his solution—put the onus, once again, on the consumer, with a little financial help from the companies—isn’t exactly the golden ticket. In fact, the existence of a company like TerraCycle itself gives big corporations a crutch to hide behind while they fight against solutions that would actually cost them money. (Vox reported that many of the companies that have struck deals with TerraCycle have also paid big bucks to lobby against recycling mandates in the European Union.)
Luckily, there may be some solutions on the horizon. Last month, Maine became the first state to mandate that polluters pay to recycle all waste sold in state. A dozen states are considering similar legislation—Oregon’s version passed both houses of the legislature and is on the governor’s desk for signing. As more and more people wake up to our growing plastic crisis—and as more and more cities and states struggle under the strain of our broken recycling system—here’s hoping for more solutions like these that leave no room for greenwashing.