The Power of Looking Upstream

By: Lisa Pellegrino – Strategic Partnerships Manager, Consumer Engagement

In August of 2019, TerraCycle® was asked to present at the Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans for a session titled “The Power of Looking Upstream.” Below is a blog post inspired by the panel discussion where TerraCycle’s Loop was highlighted, and the importance of going up the supply chain to address the root cause of waste.

Worm poop years aside, for the last 12 years, TerraCycle has been an international recycling company, defining itself as the world leader in recycling hard-to-recycle materials. We are a for-profit business that’s mission-driven, that mission being to “eliminate the idea of waste.” 

One of the many reasons I love this mission is because it aligns with my own belief that there’s no such thing as trash, just misplaced resources. The placement of the word “idea” is critical in highlighting this quiet collective understanding many of us have about the things we discard, and how they no longer have value.

So how did waste even become an idea, let alone a physical thing we just keep trying to bury or burn “away”?

When you think about it, garbage is pretty novel, not really existing more than 70 years ago. Everything in the natural world runs on these elegantly closed-loop systems, every organism’s waste is another organism’s food. Why then do we as humans deviate from the natural world so much?

casey-horner-4rDCa5hBlCs-unsplash
There’s no such thing as waste in the natural world. Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

To understand the how and why behind the mountains and gyres of trash floating and piling up, it’s helpful to travel back to a time before garbage existed. It’s the 1920s, and with routes in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, my grandfather Patrick Daly Benson, is delivering milk to people’s doorsteps in durable glass bottles by a horse-drawn carriage for Borden’s Milk.

The story of this iconic “milkman” is at the heart of the Loop model that TerraCycle launched in May of 2019 as an alternative to single-use, disposable packaging.

Back in the day, the dairy owned the packaging and it showed up on their balance sheet as a depreciating asset. So the dairy had a vested interest in making their packaging as durable as possible so that they could maximize the number of fills out of each bottle to drive costs down.

Looking at our current linear system of take-make-waste, we’re able to gain insight into how we got here by digging into the economics of packaging. In accounting terms, a balance sheet is considered a snapshot of a company’s financial condition with three core components-assets, liabilities, and ownership equity. 

evgeny-karchevsky-k1tUxfs8JYY-unsplash
Photo by Evgeny Karchevsky on Unsplash

Fast forward to the present, companies are incentivized to make their packaging as inexpensively as possible because they no longer own it. Packaging has shifted from being an asset for the company to being recorded on financial statements as COGS which stands for “cost of goods sold.”

To illuminate this fundamental economic shift that’s taken place, Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s founder and CEO asks the question:

Why do we own things we don’t want to own?

With the advent of disposable packaging came a promise of less work, some advertisements from the 1950s ensuring “You’ll never have to do the dishes again!” As packaging has evolved over the years there’s been the practice of lightweighting, which manufacturers use to reduce the amount of material used in packaging to save money and gain efficiencies with transport and distribution. 

0_xFdxbY2z51Ymg4As
Advertisement in Life Magazine, 1955

An unintended consequence of this practice though, is that we’ve seen a steady decline in two areas: recyclability and consumer delight. There’s a reason why when you go to a fancy restaurant you don’t eat with plastic cutlery off a styrofoam plate and drink from a plastic pouch.

Using a very “human-centered design” approach, Tom and the team posed the question:

How do we solve the unintended consequences of disposability while maintaining its virtues?

This is the guiding question that has led to the launch of Loop, a global platform that’s effectively the milkman model rebooted for the modern age. TerraCycle has spent the last 16 years building up trusted relationships with our brand partners, which has been foundational to making Loop possible. 

andrew-seaman-RuudPEDUM3w-unsplash
Glass as a material is durable, returnable, and beautiful: design concepts that worked in the past and creates “consumer delight” in the present day. Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Through a diligent focus on the mission, TerraCycle’s been able to level up on the waste hierarchy and go from a recycling company to a reuse company. By applying “systems-thinking” to address the leverage points in the system, we’ve been able to look upstream, and go up the supply chain to address the root cause of waste, disposability, to prevent things from becoming trash. Through bending these linear models of consumption into more circular systems, we’re creating not only a future that looks more sustainable, but more enjoyable, as well.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s