Virtually everything we do creates waste. But how we dispose of it is cause for concern. As space becomes more limited with a growing population, landfills will become less sustainable, with some countries already resorting to exporting their waste. Numerous studies point to incineration of waste as a viable alternative.
However, while this solution can reduce waste volume immensely, it comes at a price. Incinerators are purported to be sources of “greener energy”, yet they also release unprecedented amounts of toxic dioxins – which can leach into soils and enter the food chain via crops. According to the World Health Organization these toxins are already being found in humans and animals alike around the world, posing serious long-term health risks likened to those caused by the use of Agent Orange during World War II.
The current generation’s approach to waste is also disheartening; buying “disposable” items with a use-by date already in mind has seen us nicknamed the “throw-away generation” by our more frugal elders. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)’s recent report into global waste identified that the manufacturing of products with limited durability is chiefly to blame. Such products are the result of a business strategy called “planned obsolescence” – a theory first coined by Bernard London to encourage consumption during the Great Depression.
Thankfully, growing environmental consciousness across the globe means many businesses are re-thinking their once wasteful practices and some are even placing a commitment to sustainability at the heart of their production. While their practices may vary their underlying philosophy is the same: we need to change the way we think about waste.
Terracycle is a company dedicated to the worldwide elimination of waste. Founded in 2001 by then 20-year-old Princeton student Tom Szaky, the social enterprise will collect 2.2 billion pieces of waste alone this year, engaging their 53 million strong members around the world.
“We are the world leader in recycling things that are difficult to recycle or non-recyclables,” says Szaky, adding that the members of the group prides themselves on being the “world’s biggest upcyclers.”
For him, the theory of waste is an interesting one. The first thing to understand, explains Szaky, is that waste is an entirely human and very modern concept. “A hundred years ago garbage didn’t exist – well at least not as we know it today.” Even further back than that, the problem of waste was non-existent, Szaky stresses. So why does garbage exist today?
“Two reasons. One, we make our products or objects from complex materials that nature doesn’t know what to do with. Everything is synthetic and nature doesn’t know what to do with synthetic complex materials – which are very modern as an idea.” The second reason Szaky attributes to a global burden of waste is consumption.
“Think about the last 100 things you bought; how many were mandatory to your survival and how many of them were nice to have? I’d imagine 90 per cent of it would be the nice-to-have category. Consumption and complex materials create the whole concept of garbage.” The other challenge for our waste problem is that garbage is widely ranged. Unlike our four-legged friends who produce three kinds of waste: carbon, excrement and their own bodies, the human system of waste contains 300 unique macro-categories of garbage.
“The challenge happens when you mix it all together – which is what happens in your garbage pile. It renders it non-recyclable because it’s just too complicated to separate, too expensive and that’s why we either burn or bury our garbage as a global solution.”
When it comes to waste there are five categories that could be – but as Szaky points out aren’t always – easily recyclable. They are: uncoated paper, rigid glass, rigid aluminium, rigid polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and rigid high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
“Everything else, the other 255 categories, are technically recyclable, but the economics are negative [as] you will lose money, rendering the items ‘non-recyclables’,” explains Szaky, pointing out that his team of scientists have come up with solutions for recycling things that are hard to recycle – they’ve even found a nifty way of recycling cigarette butts using mailable ashtrays.
The economic difference in recycling waste ranges – every type of garbage has a difference and somebody has to pick up the tab. Terracycle partners with manufacturers and brands to administer free programmes for consumers to help them collect the non-recyclable material, which is then recycled or “upcycled” into eco-friendly products. Examples include a backpack made from juice pouches, bicycle chain picture frames, circuit-board coasters, CD cases made from chip packets and margarine containers as planter boxes – the list goes on.
“We become the infrastructure that enables the consumer to be able to recycle the waste and the infrastructure is funded by the brand,” Szaky says of his company’s most popular programme of “sponsored waste”. Hundreds of major brands and companies committed to striving to become more environmentally friendly now boast partnerships with Terracycle.
“We solve the recyclability challenge for them, we have a 99 per cent renewal rate on all our contracts around the world – so it’s really, really strong.” One company identified for making similar environmentally conscious strides in their approach, says Szaky, is Nespresso: “They’re a very rare example of a company that’s been doing it themselves. The programmes that they’ve been running themselves have simply been naturally transferring under our management.” The organisation collaborates with the coffee company in its North American market, but says it’s safe to say that their campaigns will soon be present Down Under, having just launched a campaign in New Zealand.
Coffee lovers around the world are familiar with their favourite Grand Crus. But do you ever stop to think about what happens to all of those carefully packaged aluminium capsules and where they end up? As the message of sustainability permeates our everyday life, considerations like this become more and more important to ensuring we tread lightly on the planet.
Ecolaboration is an initiative launched by Nespresso almost a decade ago to ensure that our coffee habit doesn’t wreak havoc on the planet. The initiative includes three main commitments to coffee sourcing, capsule recycling and reducing the overall carbon footprint of each cup of coffee. Making good on their sustainability promise by having already exceeded a 75 per cent retrieval rate of used capsules set for the end of the year, the coffee company is hoping to increase our capacity to recycle and reuse their coffee capsules beyond their already 20,000 established collection points across 23 countries.
Fortunately, the task is not as hard as it may seem, thanks to the infinitely recyclable aluminium that’s used to create the capsules. But how do you get an international community of coffee enthusiasts to embrace the concept of reusing or recycling their waste? The answer lies in changing our understanding of waste or garbage.
To prove their point, Nespresso approached six leading Australian artists, known for their sustainable ethos and practice, challenging them to create original artworks using thousands of empty capsules in just two weeks. The artists, fashion and jewellery designers and sculptors managed to create innovative, useable and startlingly beautiful artworks that will be auctioned off – with all proceeds going to the artist’s charity of choice (see for yourself in the panel on the page opposite). Project Upcycle is just one example of Nespresso’s hard work to increase its recycle capability and remind consumers of the important role they play in this joint effort. Recycling points will also be popping up in Nespresso boutiques across Australia, with plans to expand efforts in the coming months.
Terracycle’s hierarchy of waste:
Values all three.
Values everything but the intention, which you destroy, still circular.
Values the material; also a circular method.
Values the energy value of the material only – that’s linear you can only burn once.
Values nothing. That’s linear too, you can only bury once, not twice.