Asia accounts for the largest share of mismanaged plastic globally–about 65% in 2019, according to Statista. The problem is urgent and tackling it requires a combined effort across various sectors, including industry and manufacturing. One of course is through conversion of waste into new reusable materials. In this area, Terracycle is a company that is well known.
TerraCycle's mission is to eliminate waste and reduce rubbish in landfills through recycling. Each month, it recycles 1 million pounds of waste globally. A key pillar of the firm’s work is partnership with government, businesses and clients: it has 600 partnerships with major brands, 40 thousand partners worldwide, and 202 million people involved in its recycling projects.
The company prides itself on its innovations and collaborative efforts to find sustainable solutions, from recycling to reuse. It has been recognized by organizations like the United Nations and it has won more than 200 awards in the in the areas of innovation and sustainability. It has been operating for almost 20 years and has presence in 21 countries worldwide including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, and South Korea.
TerraCycle’s Asia Pacific General Manager, Eric Kawabata, has 14 years of sustainability work under his belt. He used to work as a volunteer with Carbon Free Consulting in Japan in 2008 and he co-founded Ocean Green Association in 2009, a non-profit entity to study ways to lower coastal water temperatures. At TerraCycle, he launched Loop, a circular shopping platform, in Japan in May 2021. As a guest speaker in Ringier’s 2022 Asean Personal Care and Cosmetics Summit on Sustainable Packaging, he talks about the company’s efforts to enhance the efficiency of its recycling program.
Eric Kawabata, Asia Pacific General Manager, TerraCycle
Mr Kawabata explains that products used to last before the 1940s until disposable items were invented. This introduced a glamorized, throwaway lifestyle that increased the amount of waste. In 1950, there was 1.8 million tons of plastic waste globally; this sharply went up to 300 million tons in 2020, a 5000% increase per person. Mr Kawabata attributes this to a linear economy: what has to be done is to bend that straight line, and create products that are recyclable.
Quite often people may try to reuse things or to downcycle. To upcycle or go from package to package in a circular loop takes time and money and may require a redesign for that to happen. “If it is economically viable to recycle then it will happen. If it is not, it won’t”, he says. “It is a logistic cost and cost of recycling equation. If you lose money when recycling, no one would do it.” So why do companies help? How does TerraCycle get it done?
They encourage companies to build a value chain for waste: creating brand ROI, scaling solutions and value-added design, and redesign for better circularity, which leads to efficient downstream markets, which makes recycling economically feasible.
Mr Kawabata says, “just because it’s not recyclable today doesn’t mean we can’t be recyclable tomorrow to scale. And to achieve scale we need to work together as a community, retailers with multiple brands, stakeholders have to come together to innovate, to drive ideas, to drive values for communities, to encourage people to recycle, to pay for programs.”
And why would companies invest time, money and effort in this? Simply because consumers care. There is rising awareness about the issue of packaging waste in Europe and Asia. In Japan, for example, a shift in attitudes to packaging has been noted between 2021 and 2022. In 2021, only 28% of people surveyed said they would pay more for eco-friendly packaging. In 2022, this has risen to 69%. This is possibly due to friendly packaging the impact of COVID; when people generated more waste as they worked at home, their level of awareness, and commitment, to reduce waste could have risen.
TerraCycle offers companies who choose to recycle their packaging waste different ways to have return on their investment: through sustainability and CSR value, marketing and PR, they can help Tetracyclo increase the potential for sales and to keep shoppers happy. The long-term goals are to create value, drive efficiency and create scale. By creating value, it will drive efficiency, enhance brand awareness and benefit not just the company but also the consumers and the retailers.
The firm sets up the platform to collect waste from the stakeholders that the company choose. The infrastructure is set up to collect, trace and catalogue the waste so they know what came from where and how much. Then the R&D team solves the waste problem through such solutions as baselines supply chains e.g., the creation of outdoor furniture, community build, or reusing parts such as the creation of shampoo bottles from ocean plastic.
Procter and Gamble in Japan had a project during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to encourage people to bring their waste from home to retail stores and schools. Plastic waste were collected at these points across the country and were aggregated and recycled to build the Olympic podium.
Garnier Green Garden is another project where packaging waste was processed into useful materials for the garden such as raised beds, rubbish bins and picnic tables. Lancome created the Beauty Care Recycling Program in more than 300 department stores in China which became the largest project of its kind in the world. Again in China, packaging from a Loreal product were used to create new benches and desks for schoolchildren. At Kiehl’s Made Better Green Plant Art event in China artwork made from 100% recycleable materials were displayed at the exhibit. L'Occitane, created ecobags from packaging and used this as a promotional give away in China and Korea. In Japan, the bags were sold in the store to create revenue to pay for recycling, which completes the cycle.
Brands would sometimes band together for a recycling project, such as the partnership between Shiseido, Loreal and Pantene to recycle beauty care packages at the Glam Boutique in Japan. A similar example is the LOFT Green Project where 28 brands worked with a retailer called LOFT to create a beauty care recycling program.
Another strategy is to use parts and put these back into the supply chain. Used caps, for example can be reused this way through cap to cap recycling. P&G for instance made its product packaging from monomaterials to make it easier to recycle.
Recycling can be used to address a specific plastic waste problem such as ocean plastic. TerraCycle worked with companies, governments and communities Korea, Australia, China, and Japan to collect ocean plastic and recycle it. Collecting ocean plastic can be expensive, says Mr Kawabata. You have to collect it transport it, separate it clean it, and process it. How can this become affordable?
He cites one example. In 2017, TerraCycle collected ocean plastic in France, recycled it into a new material and sold it to Procter &Gamble. The latter used it to create the first beauty care package made from ocean plastic for its Head and Shoulders shampoo, which were sold in Carrefour outlets in France. Six months later TerraCycle and P&G were given an award by the United Nations because of this project’s impact in raising awareness about ocean plastic. TerraCycle replicated this model in Japan creating a dishwashing liquid container made of ocean plastic.
Ocean plastic can be used not just to create packaging but also new products. One example is the use of recycled ocean plastics to make shopping baskets, paid for by beauty care brand Sekissei and used in AEON retail stores. The company was allowed to put their brand on each shopping basket with a story on how ocean plastic was used to create the baskets. For four years, this project created a win-win situation for the brand, the retailer, the consumer, and the environment. A pen made from ocean plastics were launched by Pilot, after TerraCycle approached them with this idea. By buying such pens the consumers helped fund removal of plastic waste in the ocean.
Mr Kawabata says that we can create value for retail through the power of design and innovation to drive brand equity. By creating value, added value is also created for manufacturer, the recycling companies, the consumer, the point of collection and the country.
“Recycling is expensive. The first time you try to recycle something it is economically prohibitive – you don’t have scale you don’t have volume, you don’t have stability, you can’t create value. But you have to start somewhere and we believe the way to get a company to start is to create a win-win and have as many stakeholders as possible,” says Mr Kawabata. “That is what we focus on. We focus on how to make recycling fun. How to make it attractive. How to make it convenient. How to make it accessible. How to make it valuable for those who are paying for it and then in the long run how to scale it to create efficiency, to make it eventually economically independently feasible on its own so that in the end our program is not necessary we create value for the materials. But it has to start somewhere.”
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