Raining on the parade: A critique of packaging “take back”​ programs (Terracycle,Loop, Nespresso etc.)

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University 

I want to preface this post by saying that I wan’t to be proven wrong – while it may be a peculiar stance to take as a researcher, I want to believe in the environmental benefits of packaging take back programs offered by Terracycle, Recycle Bank etc.

The idea that we are now finding innovative ways to recycle problematic materials and transition towards reusable packaging is a breath of fresh air in an industry that finds itself in a waste crisis.

With that being said, it is important to fully understand what it is we are trying to achieve as we work towards a circular economy. A circular system is our end point, but the path that we ultimately take to get there is where we should focus our attention.

The following is an excerpt from the study (I have attached the full white paper for people to download). Please note that I welcome any and all questions, criticisms and comments – my goal is not to pick on any particular organization, but shed light on the challenges of using a decentralized network for waste collection.

Study Excerpt

In Spring of 2019, York University’s Waste Wiki team was asked to investigate the environmental and economic impact of take back programs involving coffee pods, and other reusable/recyclable items that have de-centralized collection networks (i.e. Terra Cycle programs for shampoo bottles, cigarette butts etc.)

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that consumer packaging goods companies are exploring end of life waste management solutions that exist outside of conventional curbside collection. Increasingly, CPG companies are announcing partnerships with “niche” recyclers (where niche is characterized as a company that specializes in the recovery of problematic/difficult to recover materials), enabling consumers to directly return used packaging to re-processors and have it be diverted from landfill.

However, scant attention has been paid as to whether these types of programs offer legitimate environmental benefits when taking a life cycle approach. While it may seem intuitive that keeping material of a landfill is a good idea, what constitutes recyclability is a much more nuanced question that requires a careful consideration of environmental benefits, costs, accessibility, availability and infrastructural capacity.

In the case of most take back programs offered by companies such as Terracycle, problematic materials are down-cycled into “one off” products. As an example, Terracycle presently has take back programs offered for a range of commonly used household products, including razors and other personal hygiene items, chip bags, multi laminate pouches, sharpies/markers and cigarette waste.

While this initially seems like a good thing, each of the aforementioned items are down-cycled, wherein the end of life secondary product cannot be subsequently recovered, and ultimately is disposed of (i.e. a shampoo bottle is converted into a running shoe, but that running shoe cannot be recycled at its end of life, and will either be landfilled or incinerated).

While Terracycle and their peers should be celebrated for their innovation and commitment to finding new uses for problematic materials, their approach to recycling and reuse creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled/reused.

At present, the processing technology involved in any of the aforementioned take back programs is economically prohibitive, and is really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered. Simply put – municipal waste management infrastructure is not designed to either collect or recycle problematic materials.

As an example, the only cost analog that can readily be found in a municipal waste system is for multi-laminate plastic packaging (chip bags, yogurt squeeze containers etc.). In 2018, for the limited number of municipal programs that accepted multi laminate materials as part of their Blue Bin, the cost of recycling exceeded $2000 a tonne.

While comparing Terracycle’s costs (which are not shared) with a public municipal waste management system isn’t a particularly useful comparison, it is done to highlight just how costly it is to achieve, even with established collection, consolidation and sorting systems in place.

Take back programs offered by packaging companies and their partners must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material to specific facilities, and ensure that those facilities are readily equipped to process that material at scale. The economic and environmental impact of a decentralized logistics network is questionable – take back programs that ask consumers to ship things like coffee pods, chip bags, razors etc. hundreds of kilometers can be both inefficient and costly.

At this time, neither Terracycle nor their partners were willing to share their cost and diversion data with the university, limiting the ability to model our own costing scenarios.

However, as an intellectual exercise, let’s look at a take back program that we have a better understanding of – The “Nespresso” Aluminum Coffee Pod (also managed by Terracycle). 

Results  (See link below)


Closing Comments

For those of you who may not be inclined to read through the entire white paper (although it is a relatively light read at a little under 8 pages – with lots of graphs), the closing comments are as follows:

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. However, the danger of programs such as Nespresso’s mailer program is that it creates the illusion of being a good environmental citizen (from both the perspective of the packaging producer and the consumer). However, as both consumers and decision makers, we have to perform our due diligence when evaluating whether our actions (in this case, recycling) are achieving our intended objectives (preferable environmental outcomes).

What is perhaps most damning is that Nespresso Aluminum pods is one of the only environmentally friendly packaging types managed by Terracycle that can readily be recycled at a low cost. Table 1 below summarizes the known emissions credits and recycling costs for commonly found Blue Box Materials (managed via curbside).

Table 1: Comparison of Emissions Credits and Recycling Costs

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Please note that the costs per tonne DO NOT include collection costs – these are just the costs of sorting and processing materials at a material recycling facility, net of any revenue received from marketed materials. Curbside collection costs for Blue Box materials typically range from $150-$300 a tonne (as different municipalities have different collection infrastructure, housing densities, labor rates etc.).

While Terracycle did not provide a breakdown of their collection costs for any of their take back programs, the purpose of this study is to highlight that voluntary take back programs, particularly involving those using a mailer system, can only work when there is a critical mass of consolidated material, and that material is being collected at designated intervals. A take back program that leaves it to consumer discretion for how and when they will return end of life materials is in all likelihood significantly more costly from a transportation perspective due to the number of unique trips required. The only way for material to be efficiently transported is when there is a critical mass of material to transport.

As a secondary concern, important questions surrounding the accessibility and affordability of take back groups needs to be considered. Many of the programs offered by Terracycle and their partners exist largely in urban areas – the reason for this is fairly obvious, as it is simply not economically feasible to offer recycling programs to everyone, everywhere. As a tangent to this statement, the introduction of reusable packaging such as Loop has placed upwards pressures on the price of packaged goods – once again, a novel and unique design, but one that is not readily affordable or accessible to a significant percentage of Canadians.

A recent study from York University estimated that lower income marginalized households are those most likely affected by increases in packaging prices, as a greater proportion of their purchases are made up of pre-packaged items.

The findings from this study should be interpreted with a degree of caution – in the absence of having Terracycle’s data, we can only make best guess estimates based on the existing cost of managing a municipal waste system in Ontario. We welcome critics of these findings to share their data, such that we can all have a better understanding of what it is we would like to achieve from our waste management systems moving forward.  

Simply “recycling” is not enough, and we need to be both ready and willing to explore packaging alternatives that “think outside the Blue Box”.