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How One Company Is Turning Recycling Into an Unconscious Behavior

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Jin

Americans are generating waste at an unprecedented rate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the generation of municipal solid waste (from clothing, and food and personal items, for example) was 262.4 million tons in 2015, the most recent data available. That’s an increase from 259 million tons in 2014 and 208.3 million tons in 1990. 

Thanks to a growing awareness of the role that waste can play in accelerating climate change, individuals and companies are increasingly making an effort to recycle. 

To help with this effort, more and more innovators are stepping onto the scene. One such company, Terracycle, partners with businesses and municipalities to promote reuse of difficult-to-recycle materials, such as cigarette butts, diapers, and packaging scrap. 

Through its program Loop, consumers can purchase products like Häagen-Dazs, Coca-Cola, and Nivea in reusable containers instead of disposable ones, and Terracycle will pick them up for refill when they’re finished.

“The thing we’re doing is trying to make it easy for people to act more sustainably,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of Terracycle, which is based in Trenton, New Jersey. “With Loop, for example, one of the key attributes is ‘How do we make the behavior as close to a disposable experience as possible, while acting reusable?’” 

Getting more businesses and consumers to recycle requires creative approaches like these — that is, those that help instrument an unconscious shift in behavior.

At what cost?

In his 17 years of experience in the recycling field, Szaky says an increasing number of businesses are making recycling a priority, but often, cost is a hurdle. However, more and more consumers are taking a stand, and demanding sustainability from the companies from which they purchase. 

“There is a growing will [to recycle], but it’s because a growing number of people are outraged across the world,” he said, adding that bans on plastic bags and straws in Europe, and a ban on disposable food-service packaging waste in Canada came only after protests led to legislation change. “That is when corporations start waking up en masse.”

Regardless, consumers have the power to effect environmental change daily, Szaky pointed out. 

“We vote multiple times a day for the future we want with what we buy, and retailers and brands react to that vote through market research and understanding our desires, and that’s what they then produce more of,” he said. “The problem is we’re doing that all unconsciously, so if we shift that understanding, all the power goes to the people, and we can very quickly shift the landscape of what is made and how companies work.”

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