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Mail-back plastic recycling is carbon-intensive, advocates claim

But company says impact is lower than landfilling or incineration

by Cheryl Hogue
June 30, 2021


Photo shows crushed, used plastic cups in a metal basket.
Credit: Shutterstock
TerraCycle says shipping plastic items like rigid polystyrene cups for recycling has a smaller carbon footprint than landfilling or incinerating them.

Shipping used plastic forks and cups, ketchup packets, and potato chip bags to a recycling center is carbon intensive, environmental advocates say.

Though ship-back programs are currently small in the US now, they could contribute to climate change if they expand, according to the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. The groups also criticize mail-back programs because the materials accepted aren’t designed to be recycled and made again into the same sort of items. The materials end up as “downcycled” to products like picnic tables that eventually end up as waste.

But the head of TerraCycle, a company that encourages ship-back efforts and recycles used plastic that curbside pickup programs reject, says the groups’ conclusions are “fundamentally false.”

Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s CEO, tells C&EN that the operations of UPS and other shipping services are far more efficient and climate-friendly than commercial garbage or recycling collection. The shipment and recycling of plastics not collected in curbside programs is much better for the environment and climate than sending such items to a landfill or incinerator, he says, citing third-party analyses of his company’s operations.

Among the items TerraCycle accepts for recycling are plastic packages from cosmetics; personal protective equipment including gloves, masks and safety glasses; cigarette butts; and wrappers from candy, chips, and granola bars. TerraCycle receives cartons of such plastics that are sorted and sent from retailers and other businesses, schools, and individuals. It makes products such as plant watering cans and garbage cans from the recycled material.

Though Szaky disagrees with Beyond Plastic and The Last Beach Cleanup’s assertions about the climate impacts of mail-back programs, he backs a major recommendation from the groups: Makers of single-use goods sold in plastic that is not accepted in curbside recycling programs should offer reusable or refillable packaging.



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