The Future is Now: Your Chip Bag Can Also One Day Become a Doggie Dish

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 05/16/2019 | 5 Minute Read

Growing up, my dad often recruited me to help him do a run to our county’s recycling center. We lived in a small, rural town in the south not serviced by garbage trucks, so it was up to us to haul our trash and recycling there. This involved packing up our small trailer full of the waste we’d accrued over the past couple weeks, journeying out to an even more remote area, and chucking bags into bins at the center.

When I moved to New York City, a whole new world of convenience opened up to me. There were bodegas open 24 hours a day. I didn’t need a car and could instead rely on public transportation. And the farthest I had to lug my trash and recycling was out to the curb each week so a couple of noisy, bumbling trucks would come and make it magically disappear.

What a luxury.

As beneficial as recycling potentially can be, it’s also confusing as hell. Different symbols mean different things, and some bins only accept a specific material, and particular recycling centers only recycle particular items. Even if I carefully separate everything in my home, I can never know if it makes it all the way through the recycling process because it’s not entirely up to me.

Which is what makes the TerraCycle system so intriguing—it takes recycling and makes it more convenient and, hopefully, more effective.

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TerraCycle recycles the “non-recyclable.” They partner with retailers, manufacturers, and individuals to collect hard-to-reuse waste—think razor blades, coffee capsules, and pens—and then give it a new life.

Take, for instance, Late July Snacks. Chip bags typically go straight to the garbage bin, but what if you could take that empty bag, fold it up, and ship it off to get remade into something new? As part of the TerraCycle program, you can do just that.

“We have used these materials in making feeding containers for pets, and also in the inserts for coolers available at Walmart,” explained Ernel Simpson, Global VP of Recycling Technology.

Consumers sign up to join the TerraCycle program online, and then select which individual recycling programs they’d like to be part of (there are many besides Late July Snacks, including ARM & HAMMER pouches, Brita products, Bausch + Lomb contacts, and a general “beach plastic” cleanup program). Once accepted into the program, all it takes is a click of the button to print off a UPS mailing label and ship off the materials.It sounds easy enough, so I grabbed a bag of Late July chips for myself to see how the whole process worked. Once the chips were bought and consumed (a crucial part of the operation, of course), I hopped onto the TerraCycle site to enroll and print off a label. Unfortunately, enrollment into a program doesn’t happen immediately, and I was put on the waitlist.

“Due to the fact that our programs constantly fluctuate, it is difficult for us to determine if or when a spot will become available for the program, however you will be notified as soon as a spot has become available for you,” commented Stephanie Chamberlain, Global Customer Relationship Manager at TerraCycle. “Some of the wait lists are in the 1,000's and depending on the popularity of the program you can be on the waitlist for upwards of a year or longer.”

Stephanie encouraged consumers to collect and store items, though, because they may very well be approved sooner than that (I received an email less than a week later stating my acceptance). “Running a program of this scale brings with it a multi-million dollar cost that our brand partners have been generous enough to underwrite.  Through their funding, we are able to offer free shipping, a recycling solution as well as a donation for each recyclable collected for select programs,” she added.

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So while Mother Earth would love to have an infinite amount of people sending in their recyclables right this minute through TerraCycle, it’s not entirely possible. Still, that shouldn’t stop people from getting the process started—the sooner they sign up, the sooner they can send in those non-recyclable items to get remade into something fresh.

Because I merely wanted to try the system out, I sent in only one Late July bag, all by itself, which I realized wasn’t the most efficient. Not only did I need to get an envelope for it, but it took up space and energy on the UPS truck. I’d certainly prefer to see that chip bag remade into something else rather than rotting in a landfill, but for the future, it seemed more logical to save up a few of the packages and send them together.

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Then, at some point this week, my chip bag made it to Ernel Simpson—or at least to one of five US TerraCycle warehouses where it would then be cleaned, shredded, and converted into granules.

“Typically, the process takes about three weeks, including transport, collection, sorting. We don’t recycle it right away, though,” Ernel added. “We like to recycle when we have 40,000 pounds of materials. It’s more cost-effective, so we wait until we have enough material to be recycled, and then we send it off to the processing facility to be converted.”

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And from there, the material helps make doggie dishes, coolers, and other containers—items which are also recyclable, indefinitely.

Yes, really. There’s a common belief that recycled materials have a somewhat compromised value, but Ernel insists that isn’t the case. “When people say recycled items lose properties, remember when you have a recycle stream that not all materials have gone through the same number of recycling cycles. So unless you are using the same material and recycling over and over and over, there is not a rapid decrease in properties as people think happens.”

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What does rapidly reduce the property of recyclable materials is the sun. When an item gets exposed to high UV for prolonged periods of time, it degrades it more than any amount of repeated processing, he added. So as long as I’m not leaving my chip bag on the patio for the next few decades, Fido will have a well-made drinking bowl in his future that doesn’t require virgin materials.

“This is a sustainable process, and it contributes to the circular economy,” Ernel mentioned. At the rate we’re going now—with nearly 140 million tons of waste going to landfill per year—anything that avoids a linear life can hopefully help us reduce that number. And if that means a quick stop at UPS with a prepaid label to send in my trash, I’m down to do it.

“These are things which can be reused,” Ernel said. “That’s why recycling is one of the better efforts to continue the life of a material.”

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