Terracycle: Greenwashers All the Way Down

When “eco-capitalists” get involved, the level of dishonesty inherent in capitalism goes up. Facts not mentioned in ordinary corporate operations turn into active, heavily researched tricks and deceptions.

Consider Terracycle, the scam being run by college drop-out Tom Szaky.

Terracyle claims to be an “upcycler,” purportedly taking used products and packages and making them into supposedly “green” new products.

Of course, though you’d never know it from the fawning coverage it receives in the capitalist press, the operation doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny, even from the outside.

Consider the product by which Terracycle got itself off the ground — garden fertilizer sold in re-used soda bottles. The obvious two questions about this stuff? First, what happens to the empty bottles after the fertilizer is gone? Second, given that Terracycle is a “partner” with both Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay/Pepsi, isn’t Terracycle actually yet another device for pre-empting bottle bills, to say nothing of its role in preventing people from questioning the explosion of plastic drink packaging in the first place?

Meanwhile, consider the degree of green-ness of this:


What is that? It’s a pair of supposedly portable speakers for computers and mp3 players.  When used, they look like this:


Again, rather obvious questions arise:

First of all, precisely what does the product’s main eco-promise — “made with up to 80% recycled materials” — actually mean?  This piece of marketing double-talk combines both the “made with” and the “up to” escape clauses that are so familiar from mainstream corporate marketing efforts.  “Made with” is not the same as “made entirely from,” though it takes active thinking to catch the distinction.  Meanwhile, if you, dear reader, would be so kind as to post a reply to this very blog post, I will gladly send you up to a million dollars as a thank you gift.

Second, take another look at the packaging of these so-called speakers (which Terracycle telling markets not as electronics equipment but as toys for kids).  How “up to” green is this particular offering, if one counts the plastic box and cardboard casing in which it comes?  Why does Terracycle omit the packaging from its internet depictions of the product?

Finally, notice how Terracycle “upcycles” the junk food wrappers it solicits from it targeted victims.  Why does Terracycle use the wrappers as decorative coverings for its products, rather than pulverizing and blending them into their structures?  Doing the latter would certainly be greener, as it would require no primping and gluing of the wrappers.  Could the real reason, perchance, be that Terracycle’s corporate junk-food partners see the former move as a clever new way of deepening brand loyalty while also implying their products are green?

And notice, too, that Terracycle’s main targets are school children.  “Szaky says more than 60% of all American schools are collecting garbage with TerraCycle.”  Again, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the connection between that, the supposed “upcycling” of wrappers onto the faces of Terracycle products, Terracycle’s list of corporate partners, and its true purpose and business model.

The actual rank of environmental concern in that model can be judged by reading the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Szaky.  From that, does he sound to you like a worried ecologist or just another cash-seeking con man?

14 Replies to “Terracycle: Greenwashers All the Way Down”

  1. Oh, this idiot probably will be featured speaker at Bioneers 2015 with Amory Lovins and most likely a Ted Talk in his near future also – what a goober.
    Have you seen that there are two mass-market “Branding” books out this month, reviewed by the Boston Globe, by Kent Greenfield and Martin Lindstrom, the latter a marketing dude? Looks like TCT has the finger on the pulse – sorry, after a quick look at the Lindstrom vita, I’m out.

  2. Thanks for your comments and concerns about TerraCycle, we appreciate all feedback, positive or negative. We know we are not perfect, but your article is full of inaccuracies and opinions passed off as fact. If you are truly the consumer advocate you claim to be, I trust you will publish my clarifications.

    – Can’t pass outside scrutiny you claim? We have had independent audits done by a variety of non-profits, NGOs and government groups such as zerofootprint.ca, the EPA, the DEP and many other confirming the sustainability of our products and programs. Countless lifecycle analyses show our products having anywhere from 40-80% smaller carbonfoot print. I will gladly share these LCAs, in their entirety, simply email me press@terracycle.net.

    We do nothing to “preempt” bottle bills, in fact we encourage our participants in the Bottle Bill states to use their local programs, not TerraCycle. What you fail to mention here is there are Bottle Bills in only 11 states, what about the other 39? You also fail to mention recycling rates in the US are shamefully low, so providing extra outlets is not competition, it is a helping hand.

    – The speakers: despite your skepticism, we say “Up to 80%” because the actual number varies between 70% and 80% and we can not control the exact amount because the speaker mechanisms use a varied amount of material in their wiring. As for packaging it is PET, 100% recyclable.

    – Finally, 90% of the material we collect is recycled back into the products, their in-store display or other plastic products (plastic lumber, recycling bins, paving stones, railroad ties and water cans are the largest product lines. So in fact we do, in a vast majority, exactly what you are accusing of of not doing. Reading some of that “fawning media” would make this quickly apparent

    – As for us being “con-men”: we donated 3 million dollars to schools and non-profits in the last two years. Do you know how much profit we have made? Less than 500K dollars. So we donate 6 times as much money as we earn. Also we are a second chance employer in one of the country’s most dangerous cities, Trenton, NJ. We provide free, non-branded curriculum to schools (all up to McReal National Standards and created by The Could Institute). Have doubts about the local impact? Check the teachers who post positive things on our FB page about the impact of our program on their students and communities on a daily basis. Finally we have collected an reused almost 3 billion pieces of packaging waste. Should that packaging have never been crated in the first place? Maybe. But it would have even if TerraCycle didn’t exist. At least we are working to create some social good out of what only 4 years ago was nothing but a negative.

    Questions? Comments? We are very transparent despite the bases accusations to the contrary. You and all your readers should feel free to contact me directly, press@terracycle.net.

    Finally Michael, I ask you, where do you donate the proceeds from your book? I look forward to finding out.

    Thanks for your time,

    Albe Zakes
    TerraCycle Co-Founder

  3. Albe, this site leaves all on-topic comments up, so nothing to worry about there. As for my book, I spent thousands of hours researching and writing it, and have earned back maybe $5,000 on it, so there are no proceeds to donate to anybody. More like $2/hour labor income to me.

    As to my criticisms of Terracycle, I stand by them, as they are far from baseless.

    The main question is whether Terracycle is a greenwash shill for major waste producers. Would any of your corporate partners be paying you if you weren’t producing products plastered with their logos?

    As for bottle bills, one presumes you’re aware of the position of Coke and Pepsi on that topic. As long as they are your partners, your operation is certainly open to major question on that front. Would Coke and Pepsi stay with you if you made bottle bill advocacy as up-front as your other messages? Why don’t you try it, and report back to us on what happens?

    And what does happen to the pop bottles after the fertilizer is gone?

    There are many other questions one might ask, if one were doing a genuine audit of Terracycle’s actual green-ness. Such an audit would involve a close observation of not just your marketing claims, but also the details of your manufacturing processes. Again, call us when that happens.

    As for “consumer” advocacy, you seem to misinterpret this site. I reject the word “consumer,” and the point of this operation is anti-capitalist education.

    Thanks for checking in!

  4. What bilge from this corporate stooge.
    Where is the shame?
    To trumpet how much this corporation pays out in greenwashing guilt-avoiding donations, as if it exists purely to donate money and save the poor of Trenton, is offensive show-boating.
    The speakers look like crap, and the last thing we need is more corporate advertising polluting the visual environment. And leave the goddam curriculum to the teachers – get your ridiculous “non-brand” branding curriculum out of America’s public schools, now – the “positive” comments you get from the poor lowly teachers is because you are taking advantage of them and their defenseless charges.

  5. Thanks, Michael, for your thoughtful response. I appreciate, respect and would defend your right to make these criticisms. I do wish you’d made an attempt to contact us or discuss these issues with us as we are very open about our business model and access to our team and facilities. None the less, you raise great points:

    – Though it was not this way a few years ago today 90% of the material TerraCycle processes goes into the utilitarian applications I mentioned in my previous comment (plastic lumber, railroad ties etc), so yes actually these companies are currently working with us despite the vast majority of the materials we make from their material being non-branded.

    – As for the bottle bills, Coke and Pepsi have provided nothing more than the license to use their bottles. They don’t pay us any money for the collection or use of the bottles to package our fertilizer. So we could talk about the Bottle Bills all we wanted, however we are a recycling company, not a political action group.

    – As for the empty bottles, I must point back to the Environmental 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). The 3 R’s are ordered in their importance, so the best is to Reduce, then to reuse, then to recycle. TerraCycle is reusing the bottles (the 2nd R), when someone is done with the fertilizer they can either return the bottle to TerraCycle to be reused again or they can recycle it through their local municipality, in addition we print “self-reuse” ideas directly on the labels. Giving consumers three responsible ways to “dispose” of the bottle.

    – Finally as for audits, Michael, they WERE in depth analysis done of our collection and manufacturing processes exactly as you have requested. I assume you won’t believe me, so please look at them yourself. Several, in their entirety, can be downloaded here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4937177/LCAs%20for%20TCT.zip

    Finally I didn’t mean to misinterpret your site, only defend my company, I rather like your site, frankly.

    @Martin – When blind anger replaces true discourse all men lose, including us corporate stooges. The name calling is a very productive manner to progress society. To be clear, though about my “stoogedom”. I am 27, a long-standing member of NPR, the NRDC and The Nature Conservancy, was a 4 year volunteer coordinator at Public Interest Research Group (which I am sure you’ll call a government puppet) and live with my parents. None of which is some great accomplishment by any means, but being blindly labeled a “corporate stooge” by someone that knows nothing about me, I can do without. Go find a better person to vilify.

    – About our programs and curriculum, we don’t force our curriculum on a single school, yet over 10,000 teachers have downloaded it their own free will. Thanks for deciding we are evil and taking advantage of them, but I am sure they would disagree. As for “taking advantage of their defenseless charges”, dude let’s be realistic, we run free recycling programs that pay the schools to get kids to collect granola bar wrappers and yogurt cups and glue bottles etc (regardless of brand). Is that truly so horrible? Surely there must be a better cause for you to take up…

    Is TerraCycle some perfect solution, no, of course not. In the ideal world, everyone would grow their own food and all packaging (the little that would exist) would be recyclable, corporations wouldn’t exist and all business would be local mom and pop type operations. Unfortunately that world does not exist, far from it, TerraCycle is helping to lessen the impact of broken system. Bless the people who find a way to fix the systemic issues our society and economies face. In the meantime, TerraCycle will continue to find solutions for waste streams that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration.

  6. Albe, I return your respects and appreciations. Terracycle is certainly not the heart of the beast, and in many ways, the system/collective situation itself is the problem, as a famous bearded dude once said. I am not a fan of the overall impact of such efforts, but I do appreciate the importance of what my former hero John Michael Greer calls dissensus (facilitation of different attempts to solve problems). I am comfortable agreeing to disagree, and shaking hands on being dissensual rivals/comrades.

  7. Okay, fair enough rejoinder, not that I buy most of it, not the donating part, not the curriculum part, not the corporate profit system exemplified by Terracycle, but you seem like you have some decent intentions and are caught up in matters you really don’t understand – so good luck trying to work within the system.

  8. You might find this interesting (download it, terracycle might take it offline after they read this comment):

    Check especially:
    slide 9 “Proprietary data on collection organizations”
    slide 26 and 44.

    It’s a presentation directed at companies interested in partnering with terracycle to collect their waste. It puts a strong focus on the marketing vallue of consumers no longer regarding their packaging as waste, thus consuming more (as a result of reduced guilt)… It is also mentioned that reused branded packaging equals milions of dollars worth in advertising space. Where as terracycle publicly states to be collecting waste because it is a valuable resource, companies are required to pay “per shipment” fees to terracycle for every box of their waste collected by consumers.
    The ecological efficiency of actions like sending in 5 plastic bags by mail (to get a reusable bag in return), is questionable. The marketing value is less questionable. (see slide 32).
    Normal recycling companies need bulk waste collection and processing, and then still aren’t able to make the numbers work for such low-value waste. But then again, they are just selling a product, not an image.
    It seems terracycle has, to say the least, changed to not only reusing and recycling because it is efficiënt and ecological, but also as a tool to clean up corporations image, at least sometimes, in a way which is disproportionate to the actual reduction in ecological impact by the measures taken. Which might just be the definition of greenwashing.

  9. I’m considering signing up with Terracycle in our local community because we live in a remote rural area with less-than-progressive recycling options. Many recyclable things are going into the garbage (chip bags, dairy tubs, and the like) because there is no local way to recycle them.

    If Terracycle is a problematic solution for our needs, who can recommend a better one?

  10. FWIW, luckychrm, my own take is that recycling is too little too late if not a gesture. Personally, I do it, but am not a stickler.

    I tend to agree with the late Barry Commoner: Pollution and waste are mostly determined in production, not use.

    Having said all that, I have nothing much against using Terracycle.

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