When I’m not preoccupied with how undeniably awesome 2021 is turning out to be, I’m preoccupied with one of the biggest remaining questions left from our Year of No Garbage:
What REALLY happens to the stuff I send to Terracycle?
The reason this is a terribly important question is because I know our family could not have survived this year without our Zero Waste boxes from Terracycle. Like it or not, one of the biggest lessons of our Year of No Garbage was: if all else fails, send it to Terracycle. And when we said this, we were almost always talking about plastic food packaging.
You’d think plastic food packaging wouldn’t be such a big deal. After all, our family doesn’t buy lots of prepared or convenience foods: like any self-respecting food lover I shop the perimeter, focus on whole foods, and make as much as I can myself, from tortillas and chicken broth to yogurt. Given all that, how bad could the packaging really be?
The answer is really, really bad. All one has to do is look around my kitchen to see the evidence of plastic wrappers, containers, seals, caps, bags and boxes of every shape and variety in various states of being washed, dried and sorted— and this is all while I’m actively thinking about avoiding plastic all the time.
I mean, how much plastic would we be going through if I paid no attention?
Admittedly, the pandemic makes it worse. Normally I’d be able to mitigate packaging by bringing my own containers to specialty stores, buying in bulk, requesting paper-and-string wrapping for my cheese and meat. But once the pandemic began I made the decision to limit my shopping excursions to one, once a week trip to the supermarket where, of course, no reusable containers are allowed and nobody gives you fun wrapping choices. According to this new scenario, it turned out there were entire aisles of food we simply couldn’t buy at all without involving plastic packaging: Cheese. Bread. Cereal. Meat. Once I got past the produce section with my reusable mesh bags, it was all downhill from there.
We all know what happens to metal and glass in the recycling process, it gets made into new cans and bottles. But what was Terracycle doing with all this used plastic? My husband Steve was definitely suspicious. Was this for real, or just some kind of expensive feel-good?
He wasn’t alone. Everyone I talked to about Terracycle found it to be something of an enigma, a mirage that sounded too good to be true, including many of the folks in the Beyond Plastic Pollution class I took through Bennington College last fall taught by former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck. This class was composed of serious environmental activists, the kind of folks who looked forward to spending an evening watching a Power Point presentation on the evils of plastic. If these people doubted the legitimacy of the enterprise, then Terracycle had a serious credibility problem.
At the beginning of last year I had called to ask if Terracycle conducted tours of their recycling facility; they didn’t. I then turned to Terracycle’s website and watched videos posted there, many of which are old (posted 8, 9, 10) years ago— and others which were beside the point (how to make a bracelet out of used coffee capsules!)
I watched several tours of their office space in Trenton, New Jersey which features graffiti murals and partitions made out of old vinyl records. Over and over I listened to Tom Szaky tell different interviewers how he started the business in his college dorm room, putting fertilizer into old soda bottles— which is a great story. But I wanted more.
After getting diverted by other things I stopped looking, and time went by. Then this week, I returned to the search. Geez- it was right there! How could I have missed it? It appears they posted it this year, after I had originally looked for it. But there it was: what happens when Terracycle opens your Zero Waste box:
Okay, so now we know what they do with our plastic packaging: they turn it into plastic pellets to turn into things like park benches and picnic tables. (This is very similar to what Trex is doing with all that #2 and 4 plastic film we are bringing to the supermarket plastic bag recycling container, turning it into outdoor plastic decking material.)
How you feel about this revelation depends a whole lot on who you are. Is this “upcycling”: creating a product of higher value than the original? A picnic bench is surely more valuable than any amount of disposable food packaging after all. Are you delighted that our otherwise-useless plastics are being turned into something useful, a fate so much better than being landfilled, ending up in our oceans, or burned in toxic incinerators?
Or do you see this as “downcycling”: creating a product of lesser quality than the original? When melted or chipped into new products, most plastics lose “integrity,” and the number of things they can be turned into dwindles. The plastic used in the picnic tables is of a lesser quality because it can be used for fewer things. And don’t forget it still leaches chemicals into the environment and breaks off into microplastics that infiltrate our environment, the food chain, and our bodies.
Terracycle seems like an unquestionably good thing. But when we look closer, we must ask: does recycling with a program like Terracycle do more harm than good? Is it truly better for our planet and environment? Or, does it serve to assuage our environmental conscience, so we don’t have to do the harder work of committing to bigger, more meaningful change?
Moving plastic around like this without working for actual change to the system is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic- it’s not going to matter unless we find a way to right the ship. Plastic is our looming environmental iceberg and despite some recent positive changes— plastic bag and styrofoam bans being the best examples— so far we are still full steam ahead.
We need to stop saying “It’s okay- It’s recyclable!” When it comes to plastic, it’s not okay, and it isn’t recyclable… not really.
Yes, I’ll still use Terracycle, and they are for real. But is that good enough? I still admire them for attempting to save the world, and for insisting that there’s no such thing as “garbage.” But what we need to work towards, and look forward to, is the day when we won’t have any reason to use them at all.