Subscription recycling program aims to reclaim 'unrecyclable' items
As summer comes to a close, you may be doing some autumn cleaning. And like any time you’re tidying up, you may find yourself with a lot of things you want to get rid of. So, what happens with those things that you can’t recycle, but you don’t want to throw away? A new subscription recycling program launching soon in the Burlington area says it has a solution.
Host Connor Cyrus talks with Kathy Pazakis, executive vice president of commercial at TerraCycle, an international recycling company focused on hard-to-recycle waste. TerraCycle is partnering with Vermont waste hauler Casella on a new subscription program to recycle items that were previously not recyclable.
Below are excepts from the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Connor Cyrus: This program is all about hard-to-recycle items. What are we talking about exactly?
TerraCycle's Kathy Pazakis: Items that are not typically recycled through municipal or curbside programs. The reason we call them hard-to-recycle is simply because there aren't easy solutions for consumers to find a recycling program for them. So this might be something from your plastic No. 7–your refill pouches for soaps or some of the pouches that foods and snacks come into–all the way through things like plastic toys, office supplies, sporting goods, or coffee capsules.
What makes these hard to recycle?
Recycling is a business. If we step way back, and we talk about municipal recycling for a second, the reason why things are curbside or municipally recyclable is because the recycling company can make a profit after they collect and recycle those materials into a raw material. So for example, if you recycle aluminum, you then can sell recycled aluminum for a profit–for an amount that's higher than the cost that it was to collect and recycle or process that material. Same thing with paper. Same thing with specific kinds of plastic or clear bottles and jars.
Much of Vermont has become accustomed to zero-sort recycling, where all items you want to recycle go into one bin. Has this habit of not sorting things complicated the idea of recycling these hard-to-recycle items?
I think it has two effects, one positive and one potentially negative. So on the positive side, I think it makes it simpler for people to recycle, right? People are recycling more, they're not intimidated by the idea of having to sort, and there is amazing recycling technology out there like optical sorter technology that makes life simpler and is probably more effective than human sorting.
But on the negative side, when you can throw everything into one bin, you start to see more “wish cycling,” or putting things into your recycling bin because you think that they should be recycled, or maybe you hope that they're going to be recycled. So as a result, what has happened is that “wish cycling” is contaminating a lot of these zero-sort recycling processes. It can slow down or bring operations to a halt, as workers then have to reach in and hand remove incorrect items.
What do you do after these items are sorted and processed? Are we talking about boiling all the plastic down into a raw block of plastic that can then be used to make a new water bottle or toothbrush?
Most recycling right now in the United States is what we call mechanical recycling. So mechanical recycling is you take a big item, you shred it down, you separate each of those individual shreds into the type of materials that they are, and then that material can be ground down. Sometimes it's a dust, sometimes it's pelletized. Sometimes it stays in flakes. And that's what's considered the raw material, which is then sold into a new manufacturing process. Ours tend to go into large scale manufacturing processes like drain pipes, like agricultural film, like a masterbatch colorant.
How is TerraCycle able to make a business with this kind of service that tackles hard-to-recycle items?
So all TerraCycle programs are designed to find funding sources for the recycling process, right? Something like this program, which we're piloting with Casella in Vermont, allows consumers to take on the cost of recycling their products at their end of life. So what TerraCycle does is tries to close the loop between the cost of collecting and processing these items, and a funder on the other side.
Broadcast at noon on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.