Alternatives to Recycling: Terracycle

(In response to a comment posted to the Pratt Envirolutions facebook, this post is dedicated to alternative recycling programs.)

Dos & DON’Ts of TerraCycle products

TerraCycle is a group of “brigades” which collect items that would otherwise be landfill-bound, because Sanitation cannot handle so many unique recycling processes required by this ‘trash’, and recycles them into products sold at reasonable prices by DwellSmart. Sign up (as an individual or organization, like a school) to a brigade is free—although there are limited spots—in order to receive pre-paid shipping labels. Your job would then be to collect materials (which depend on your brigade: Bear Naked, Candy Wrapper, Colgate Wisp, Laptop, Solo Cup, and many others) and ship them according to instruction. As TerraCycle does not require a minimum, the pressure to fill a quota is non-existent.

Next, TerraCycle’s job would be to recycle the shipped materials into new products. This is where I start to doubt the program: while many products like plant pots, environmentally-friendly cleaning products, and up-cycled billboard book bags are useful and look good, there are many not so useful and just plain tacky items for sale. Correct me if    I am wrong, but who has the need for a Capri-Sun pouch patch-work style bag? Or a Lay’s bookbag?

TeraCycle corkboard: DIY, or to buy?

The program stresses the resources required to produce new products, while down-playing the transportation costs. For example, a cork recycling brigade yields material to manufacture a cork board (well, of course!). The cork is arranged in a pattern to a wooden frame; simple. But when I see that it is manufactured in China (with corks presumably collected in the USA, never mind the provenance of their original wine bottles), I have to wonder if recycling these corks (and wrappers, pens, etc.) is worth the transportation costs, in terms of both finances and resources. So many of the products are so simple that Pratt students would have no problem making them as a lazy Sunday afternoon DIY project—a project that could be made in the USA. The food equivalent of this is local versus organic—ideally, you would have them united.

Check out Ecoist.com for slightly more fun and design-focused products created along similar guidelines.

Preserve Gimme 5 is an example of a more focused program: they collect #5 plastics (like yogurt cups) and make them into BPA-free product, such as kitchen bowls and toothbrushes, here in the USA. As they do not pay for shipping, items should be dropped off at Whole Foods stores or other participating locations (the Park Slope Food Co-op, for example).

Both of these programs have reward systems in place based on the number of items sent in, or how many times you have electronically checked-in at the bins to give participants products, or to donate money to their chosen organizations. This is a toss-up:  should people be rewarded for recycling, something that hopefully makes sense to do even without the rewards?

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