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How Marketing and Social Action Can Bring Back Recycling

Image source: Recycle Across America

A cloud seems to be looming over the recycling industry today. No matter where you turn, the reigning attitude seems about the same — the future of recycling is in trouble. Waste management companies are moving away from recycling now that it’s less profitable; the price of virgin polymer has plummeted; the lightweight packaging trend is removing value from potentially recyclable post-consumer materials, and municipalities and taxpayers are paying through the nose to recycle, making linear disposal methods such as landfilling look more attractive and cost-effective. This ultimately begs the question: What do we need to do — as marketers, recycling innovators and social leaders — to revive recycling?

Recycling on a national scale is, whether we like it or not, a system reliant on economic incentive. If the market value of a recycled commodity is overshadowed by processing costs (collection, sorting, etc), the material won’t be recycled. If the recycling stream was consistent and contained no extraneous waste, then we would be in great shape. Of course this isn’t the case, and collecting only high-quality, highly recyclable materials without contaminants is more difficult than it seems.

Many people point to single-stream recycling as the primary culprit. The logic goes that the comingling of various recyclable materials complicates the process for materials recovery facilities (MRFs), increasing separation costs and the risk of contamination. While there is a lot of truth to this, the real issue goes back even further — to the recycling bins in our homes, schools and office buildings. To put it bluntly, most of us don’t know what we can and cannot put in the blue bin.

The more contaminants unknowingly thrown into the recycling stream, the more expensive and less effective recycling becomes. This isn’t to say that the public is necessarily at fault for unwittingly placing incompatible materials into their recycling bins. Much of the confusion has to do with the way in which recycling is presented to us. For instance, a blue bin at a local business or school simply labeled “Plastic” tells us nothing about which plastic resins are actually recyclable in that community. This results in a recycling stream filled with typically non-recyclable plastic materials, such as polystyrene cups, plastic coffee capsules, and Styrofoam food containers. MRFs then have to sort through the plastics they can’t recycle, or risk contamination of the end-product.

With this in mind, the real question we should be asking is how can we stop contamination at the source? The more contaminants we throw into our recycling bins, the more complicated and expensive the process inevitably becomes. Solving for this is going to require consumer engagement, awareness-raising, and standardization — all of which are the goals of a social action campaign we at TerraCycle have been operating with our partner, Recycle Across America.

The campaign is called Recycle Right, and we have been promoting it around the newest season of our reality show on Pivot TV, “Human Resources.” Now in its second season, the popularity of our show has given us the perfect opportunity to use it as a highly visible platform to raise recycling awareness with our viewers and the general public. So what exactly is Recycle Right?

Our primary goal is to bring recycling to the forefront of mainstream conversations, as we are in dire need of a realistic solution for contamination. We do this in a variety of ways, primarily by promoting Recycle Across America’s standardized recycling bin labels. The reasoning is simple; no matter where you turn, be it at the office, school or a local business, recycling bin labels can be as diverse as they are often ineffective. A bin labeled “Plastic,” for example, provides no instruction to consumers which plastics are incompatible, such as typically non-recyclable plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. With a standardized labeling infrastructure adopted universally, the confusion consumers often face at their blue bins can be mitigated and contamination can be more efficiently controlled.

We need more than just standardized labeling on recycling bins themselves. Recycle Right also seeks to popularize and bring into the conversation standardized packaging labels, such as GreenBlue’s increasingly popular How2Recycle Label. A standard labeling system, if adopted by a majority of product and packaging manufacturers, will be able to communicate on-package which components of the product may be recycled and which require a bit more research with your municipality to determine recyclability. This would help consumers make the right recycling decision regardless of the product, as the suggested recycling technique is identified right there on the package.

The final approach we are taking with Recycle Right is to raise awareness about proper recycling around “Human Resources.” Television is a powerful communication medium, and we wanted to use it as a platform to develop public service announcements and other forms of content to push viewers into thinking more consciously about their waste generation and recycling habits. Whether that comes in the form of short, informative videos featuring stars of “Human Resources” (TerraCycle employees) or fun do-it-yourself projects featuring waste, anything we can do to raise recycling awareness with our viewers is another step toward more universal environmental consciousness.

Will our approach to reducing contamination work? Only time will tell, but we need to seriously double-down on our efforts to get the general public “recycling right” if we want to help increase the value of our recycling streams. By reducing contamination, we can help make processing recyclables easier, more efficient, and more valuable again so that recyclers can get the profit margins they need to keep the infrastructure, and our recovery rates, going and growing. 


Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2001, Tom left Princeton University as a freshman to launch a worm-poop-based fertilizer company. In 2007, the company expanded to start collecting difficult-to-recycle… [Read more about Tom Szaky]