A renegade gel top found on a recent trail run prompted a manifesto about reducing accidental top drops. My penchant for reducing waste increased when I learned about TerraCycle—not surprising given my history with recycling.
I’ve been known to pull recyclables out of the garbage to save them from their inevitable landfill death. I pick up trash in my neighborhood and recycle what I can. I’d rather forfeit a PR than run past trail trash. For years, I’ve been taking non-curbside recyclables to a community recycling processor. Since my local drop-off center doesn’t accept everything, spotting that gel top was what you might call a fortunate accident because it led me to TerraCycle.
TerraCycle is an upcycling and recycling company with an innovative solution to waste. The New Jersey-based company collects difficult-to-recycle packaging and repurposes the material into new products. The operation is organized into brigades or categories, such as candy wrappers, personal care products, and other miscellaneous packaging. Many of the brigades are corporate sponsored, but all are brand agnostic; any brand’s packaging can go into a brigade.
Athletes should rejoice to learn their used gels and wrappers’ life doesn’t have to end at the finish line, but can keep moving forward thanks to TerraCycle’s gel packaging and energy bar wrapper brigades (this is how ultrarunner Scott Jurek reduced waste during his 2,189-mile run on the Appalachian Trail this past summer). The programs are free to participants thanks to sponsorship from GU Energy Labs and CLIF Bar, respectively.
I recently caught up with Albe Zakes, TerraCycle’s Global VP of Communications, to learn more about the company and how my used gels get a second chance at life.
How did TerraCycle start?
The company was founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky, a Princeton University college dropout. At a time when many of his peers were developing apps and websites to get rich quickly, Tom chose a different path. A social entrepreneur at heart, he wanted a business that could make money but also benefit the planet. The result was an organic fertilizer product made from liquified “worm poop” packaged in used soda bottles (recycled bottles were used because he couldn’t afford to buy new ones). In 2007, the company shifted its business model to tackle the roughly three billion product packages that annually end up in the landfill.
What happens to my gels and other wrappers?
Everything comes to TerraCycle’s headquarters in New Jersey for separation and then is sent to a processing facility where items are melted into tiny plastic pellets—the raw material to create common household products. Your gels and other packaging are transformed into trendy bags, stylish outdoor furniture, or playground surfaces, among other things.
Is there a cost to participate?
No, there is no cost to participate. Shipping your brigade back to TerraCycle is easy and free (but you do need to use your own box). You can download a pre-paid UPS shipping label from our website. Not only does TerraCycle pay shipping costs, but we also make a donation to a nonprofit organization for each brigade collection we receive. Alternatively, you can choose to redeem points to make a donation to your favorite nonprofit.
So, by sending TerraCycle my gel packages, I’m doing additional good?
Yes. The donation amount is determined by weight; typically, a point donation per unit of waste we receive. You can redeem points to donate money to schools or our nonprofit partners, such as the Arbor Day Foundation, Covenant House, and Feeding America. To date, over $12 million dollars has been donated to schools and nonprofits.
Do the wrappers and packaging need to be clean?
No, but please remove as much of the remaining product as possible before shipping your box back (for gels and energy bar wrappers this shouldn’t be an issue).
Can I comingle my items?
No, brigades cannot be combined, but you can join as many brigades as you want.
Are there any drop off locations?
Not currently. We’ve been piloting public drop-off locations and plan to roll out a program to select local markets this year. We’re interested in partnering with local running and biking stores.
What’s your favorite part about working at TerraCycle?
I get to work with young, energetic people who are passionate about sustainability and making a difference in the world—innovative minds who are full of ideas and are excited to come to work every day. We have hundreds of schools participating in our programs—kids are learning a valuable lesson about waste prevention and that a business can be profitable while also doing good. TerraCycle is creating the next generation of social entrepreneurs and making a positive impact for future generations.
TerraCycle is revolutionizing the waste industry and with revenue of $20 million a year, it’s clear the company has proven there’s value in garbage and is meeting its mission to “eliminate the idea of waste.” Even the company’s headquarters is made from garbage.
During my conversation with Albe, my mind was spinning with the many applications the company has for reducing waste in the running and endurance sport industry. As soon as I hung up, I sent TerraCycle’s website to two race directors I know. Now, I just need to organize my garage for my recycling brigades.
Note to all Portland athletes: Give me your gels and endurance wrappers, and I’ll send them back to TerraCycle!