How one company partners with brands to recycle 'unrecyclable' items and give them a second life

TerraCycle tom szaky Include USA ZWB
TerraCycle is a company that specializes in recycling non-conventional materials, like chewing gum. It partners with businesses to reduce their waste and offers many different recycling options. There's also an option for individuals to partner with TerraCycle to recycle things like diapers. This article is part of a series called "Partners for a Sustainable Future," profiling innovative alliances that are driving real progress in sustainability. image.png Casey Dworkin, founder of Sylven New York. Courtesy of Casey Dworkin Then in 2019, she partnered with TerraCycle, a business that specializes in recycling non-conventional materials. TerraCycle melts down waste, pelletizes it, and shapes it to be repurposed into anything from shipping pallets to park benches. "While the vast majority of recycling companies tend to concentrate on traditional waste streams like aluminum, paper, or specific types of plastic, TerraCycle has made a name for itself in recycling 'the unrecyclable,'" Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, told Insider. "This type of hard-to-recycle waste takes the form of virtually anything from cigarette butts to plastic snack packaging to used chewing gum." Here's a look at how TerraCycle helps companies like Sylven recycle their products. Recycling for businesses and products of all shapes and sizes image.png The TerraCycle building exterior, made with recycled material. Courtesy of Terracycle TerraCycle offers different options to its partners, depending on the size and needs of the brand: Zero waste box: This is what Dworkin and many other small-business owners use. Szaky calls it a "turnkey, all-inclusive recycling solution for hundreds of typically non-recycled items, from coffee capsules to the entire contents of your bathroom."  Mail-in envelope recycling programs: These are typically for mid-sized brands with products that can fit in mailable envelope pouches. Brand-sponsored national recycling programs: This option is for large-scale businesses that have a substantial amount of products to recycle. Companies that opt for this program also receive assistance from TerraCycle with social-media engagement and press outreach designed to drive consumer awareness of the policies.  Brands interested in integrating TerraCycle into their operations work with their business development team to develop a custom program and learn what their product may be turned into. "I'm sending them one of my shoes so that they can actually analyze the different components within it and give me a breakdown of exactly how each item and how each material can be recycled," Dworkin, who used to create shoes with Italian leather but recently switched to apple leather, said. image.png Sylven shoes are made with apple leather. TerraCycle's Tom Szaky says their recycled materials could work for playgrounds. Courtesy of Casey Dworkin Her products are likely to be converted into material placed under playgrounds. "I don't have shoes that are at the end of their product life, but my goal was to set a system in place so that when that time comes, we can be as responsible about their end life as possible," Dworkin added. TerraCycle works with third-party subcontracting facilities for processing and conversion work and a network of end users who implement the recycled material into their end-products, Skazy said. In one instance, TerraCycle partnered with Head & Shoulders to create the first recyclable shampoo bottle out of beach plastic. Individuals can recycle almost anything, from diapers to 3D materials image.png Plastic recyclables in the TerraCycle office. Courtest of TerraCycle While TerraCycle focuses on helping businesses, they also have options for individuals looking to recycle beyond paper and plastic products. Once a person makes a TerraCycle account, they have the opportunity to send in waste by purchasing specific product boxes to ship in or utilize a local drop-off location. "I'm almost doing it on a consumer level," Dworkin said. "I'm essentially purchasing their boxes that you use for footwear specifically, and I'll be filling it and sending it to them." Pricing for these boxes range based on what a person wants to recycle. For example, boxes for 3D printing materials start at $149. Alternatively, a box for diaper and waste packaging begins at $72 for the same size. These price variations account for the cost of shipping and recycling the specific item. Individuals shopping from brands who partner with TerraCycle can return their ready-to-be-recycled products to the company they purchased from. The brand then adds it to their pre-purchased containers to send to TerraCycle.  "During the lockdown, individuals also became more conscious of the volume of waste generated by themselves and their families. People had more time to think about the products they used, the amount of waste they were producing, and viable solutions for the packaging," Szaky said. Keeping the environment top of mind In August, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released a report stating that human influence has "unequivocally" warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.  "Now more than ever, consumers expect the brands they support to be as committed to their mission as they are to their actual products and are demanding that companies be transparent about their sustainability efforts," Szaky said. He believes that a brand partnering with TerraCycle shows its customers that they're taking actionable steps to fight climate change.  As Dworkin scales up her business, she hopes to create custom systems with TerraCycle. "Before recycling, we always promote care and repair," she said. She speaks with admiration for the steps in place for bigger shoe and apparel brands TerraCycle's partnered with, especially the analysis of each product to determine the most energy and cost-efficient methods of recycling each material. "There's a lot of opportunities for us to make custom solutions further down the road," Dworkin said. "It's super dependent on the specific materials that they're looking at. So because my materials are so specific, it'll be really cool to see exactly what solutions are possible."