You know what makes me crazy? List articles. You know the ones: Top Ten Things You Could Be Recycling NOW! Or: Recycling! Ten Ways You’re Doing it ALL WRONG!!
The reason I don’t like these articles is because they often purport to give you good advice about important issues, like recycling, but actually end up just skimming the surface in a way that isn’t at all helpful. We feel good about reading the article, but don’t end up with enough information to effectively change anything.
Exhibit A: in the article 10 Household Products You Never Knew You Could Recycle on Food 52, the author breezes past the thorny issue of what to do with used toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes with the advice to “mail toothbrushes to alternate recycling systems like Terracycle” adding, “Terracycle’s got you covered”!
Great! I’ll use Terracycle! we think.
But… what does that actually mean? Like… can I just write Terracycle’s address on an envelope and mail them my old toothpaste tube?
- FACT #1: No, you can’t just mail them your old toothpaste tube. The actual deal, as you will see, is far more complicated.
To begin with:
- FACT #2: You have to pay for Terracycle’s services. Unless you have a school group or business that is locally collecting for Terracycle as a fundraiser or promotion, it is a fee-based program.
On top of this:
- FACT #3: It is not all that easy to figure their system out. I myself have visited Terracycle’s website about a dozen times since the Year of No Garbage project began. Every time I visit I am determined to figure out how I, as a reasonably intelligent ordinary person, can use it. And every time I’ve been utterly defeated.
This much is clear: for the pay programs, you order a “Zero Waste” box for a fee, which includes the postage for mailing it back when it is full; they recycle the contents. So the next logical question is how much does it cost?
- FACT #4: The fee varies a LOT depending on what goes in the box, and this is where it starts to get complicated.
- FACT #5: There are 79 different types of Zero Waste Box, at least by my count. This includes boxes devoted entirely to subcategories like 3D Printing materials, toy action figures, and (my personal favorite) used chewing gum. I know. I’m not sure I want to know what they do with that.
On top of this:
- FACT #6: The Zero Waste boxes come in three sizes, the middle one of which is about the size of a kitchen garbage can… which is pretty big for someone who is just looking to recycle some empty toothpaste tubes.
Between the categories and the sizes, so far you have at least 237 boxes to choose from. Stymied yet? Well, they do have a “one size fits all” option.
- FACT #7: The “All in One” box is the easiest solution, but it is also the most expensive: the medium box in this category costs $287.
Hmm. Still trying to recycle my empty Tom’s toothpaste container here, and $287 feels a little steep. How about the “Personal Care Accessories” Box? The smallest box measures 11″ x 11″ x 20″ and costs $115. To recycle a few toothpaste tubes?
But wait! In the list of acceptable items for the Personal Care box, nowhere does it mention toothpaste tubes or toothbrushes! Back to the drawing board.
In the search bar I type “toothpaste.”
Sorry, we could not find a program matching your request.
I flip over to “Free Recycling Programs.” Maybe I could start one of those in our community, like at the local school or library? Then everyone could recycle their toothpaste tubes! For free!
- FACT #8: All the “free” recycling programs sound like advertising: “Febreze Aerosol Recycling” “Gillette Razor Recycling,” and so on. So does that mean you can only recycle those brands in these boxes? It’s not entirely clear, but it turns out it doesn’t matter, because:
- FACT #9: The free boxes seem impossible to get. When I go through the effort to register and make separate requests for three different kinds of free recycling boxes, I get a message for each one saying I’ve been placed on a “waitlist for this program.” That was several months ago.
Back to the drawing board. A search for “dental” brings up boxes for Disposable Gloves, Garage Waste and Pet Products.
I’m swimming in a sea of random objects. Vitamin bottles! Cassette tapes! Shoes! It’s all so frustrating and tantalizing at the same time. I’m so very glad Terracycle is recycling these things, but so very frustrated I can’t figure out how to use their system in a way that makes any sense. It’s like I am looking through a glass door at a wonderful world of recyclability, but the door is locked and I can’t get in.
From sheer number of categories, to the huge boxes, to the bureaucratic layout, the Terracycle website feels designed for industry, not ordinary people. Which it may be, but I’m awfully glad that it is open to ordinary people. Despite the fact that I’m giving Terracycle some crap here, I’d nevertheless like to point out that:
- FACT #10: What they’re trying to do is groundbreaking and kind of heroic. Yes, I wish it was much, much more user friendly. But as far as I can tell they seem to be the only game in town trying to recycle everything, and I think that counts for a whole heck of a lot.
The last time I checked out the Terracycle website was last week. I was seeking a solution to the burgeoning containers of plastic building up ominously in my kitchen-recycling corner. My husband Steve has started to say things like “Soooo, after the project’s all over, if this stuff is still here? We can throw it away then, right?”
Well, yeah, but that wasn’t the idea, of course. The idea was to find actual solutions. It was time at last to bite the bullet and just try ordering something from Terracycle and see how it all turned out. I selected a Zero Waste box called “Plastic Packaging.” I had both phone and email exchanges with Terracycle customer service, to be reassured this particular box was appropriate for what is building up in my recycling corner the most: crinkly cellophane plastics and co-extruded multi-layer plastics (such as packaging for meat and frozen vegetables). Then I checked on the one last thing that had been bothering me.
Did I really have to remove all paper labels?
A customer service representative wrote back: With regards to paper labels, we do ask that they are removed before you place them in your Zero Waste Box. I know these can be a bit tricky at times so please know that we sincerely appreciate your efforts in removing them!
Ugh. Well… What choice did I have? Buying the “All in One” box for at more than twice the price? No… I’d worry about the labels later.
I was finally ready.
I ordered a medium size box for $134. At some point during the ordering process I stumbled across an envelope marked “Oral Care Waste”!! At last a solution for my toothpaste tubes!!! It was $42, for a size slightly smaller than a manila envelope but I was so grateful to at last find it, I added it to my cart without hesitation.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about this pay-to-play recycling. Of course, there’s always the problem of what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-all-this-package-mailing? There’s the wondering what really happens to the stuff once it gets to the good people of Terracycle? There’s the hope that this really doing good things, but the lurking fear that I may just be paying Terracycle to assuage my first-world-problem guilt.
But cost is clearly the most obvious deal breaker. What! PAY to throw things away?? Although, many, if not most of us do that all the time. Currently we pay $57 per month for combined garbage removal and single-stream recycling. So, if I manage to get six months otherwise-unrecyclable plastic stuffed into that Terracycle box and recycled by paying $134, and a year requires two boxes, that would work out to just over $22 per month. Now, whether or not one thinks that price is: A. possible and B. worth it is another question entirely.
In cases like this, Steve likes to quote the movie National Treasure: Harvey Keitel’s FBI agent is confronting main character Nicholas Cage who asks if he really has to go to prison, even though he’s the good guy. Keitel says, “Someone’s got to go to prison.” What he means is someone, somewhere always has to take responsibility, to pay the bill. If the companies who make these almost-impossible-to-recycle products aren’t going to do it, we have to. Or the government does. Or the environment does. Someone does.
A lot of Zero Wasters advocate for eliminating the plastics and other unrecyclables by not buying the products that use them, and they have an excellent point. But it’s a point that only goes so far. During this period of quarantine, like most people, I’ve not had as many choices in food packaging or shopping as I’d like. Plus, I’m well aware that there are an awful lot of people out there who just aren’t going to willingly give up their shrink-wrapped cheese and their vacuum-sealed hamburger meat. Not for the polar bears, even.
If we’re realistic, we need more than just the committed Zero-Wasters. We need people like my mom and my dad, who are seventy five and definitely not about to start making toothpaste out of baking soda and tree bark or whatever in order to avoid using plastic toothpaste tubes. But they might do a Terracycle envelope. Maybe. We need a whole roster of solutions at our disposal, reaching larger groups of people, in order to get on the side of the environment and eliminate the concept of “garbage.”
Would it be preferable to make non-recyclables illegal? Or force companies to provide reasonable recycling opportunities for their product packaging? Yes.
But until we get there, there is something appealing to me about being able to do something besides shrug my shoulders and keep adding to the landfill. Whether or not Terracycle really makes sense in the grand scheme of things is a question to which I’m still trying to find the answer.
Meanwhile. Anyone know a ridiculously easy way to remove paper labels?
Okay, I’m pretty blown away by how much has fit into my Terracycle box so far. My ENTIRE five-month supply of cellophane/crinkly plastic went in, about half of the multi-layer plastic went in (the other half has the dreaded paper labels I have yet to figure out) and literally two-thirds of my large I Don’t Know box. This feels like the first major breakthrough since I discovered all the things that can go into the supermarket plastic bag recycling. So far I’m pretty impressed, and the box isn’t even full yet.
Things I discovered can ALSO go into the Plastic Packaging box, that before now were giving me agita in the non-recyclable pile:
-plastic blister packaging
-hard plastic with no recycling numbers
-mailing tape containers
-those little plastic tags they sneak onto the rubber bands around vegetables
-heat activated shrink-wrap seals (those bands around the cap or lid of products)
EXCITING, right? Stay tuned for more adventures in Extreme Recycling, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!