Company Finds a Way to Recycle the Un-Recyclable

Diane Bickett

Publisher’s Note: Originally posted in 2018, this story was updated in January 2024. Recycling options for some items are no longer available in Cuyahoga County.

There is a company in New Jersey, TerraCycle, doing remarkable things with trash.

Founded in 2001 by a Princeton graduate and environmental entrepreneur, TerraCycle is now an international leader in recycling the unrecyclable. TerraCycle partners with major consumer goods manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble, Bausch + Lomb, Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal, and more to run collection programs that award points for each piece of returned packaging. The points can be converted to cash and paid to schools or non-profits. Almost four billion pieces of consumer packaging have been collected and almost $16 million has been donated to schools and non-profits.

The many hard-to-recycle items that are collected are recycled by TerraCycle into various household goods.  In Cuyahoga County, the Solid Waste District is a tiny part of the TerraCycle system. Here we collect cereal bags and empty cosmetic containers such as mascara tubes, shampoo bottles, hair gel tubes, and dozens more personal beauty products from the public.

Terracycle is remarkable not just because they have found ways to recycle difficult packaging like baby food pouches and contact lens wrappers but because they are driving manufacturers to be more responsible for the packaging waste they create.

Packaging and Producer Responsibility

Packaging accounts for more than 30 percent of the waste produced in the U.S. and creates more emissions than come from heating our homes and driving our cars according to the University of California, Irvine. The companies that design and produce this packaging must be part of the solution by being more responsible for the waste they create and by being accountable for their products past the point of purchase. This life cycle thinking will result in packaging that is easier to recycle and products that are designed to last longer.

This notion is more common in in other countries like Germany, France, and Japan whose Extended Producer Responsibility laws require product producers to help pay for the costs of collecting, transporting, recycling and responsibly disposing of their products and packaging at the end of their life. Once companies in the U.S. know that consumers care about the environment, they may voluntarily adopt these practices. TerraCycle helps support that transition.