Is the mail-back recycling process really better than landfill or incineration? 

In our last post, we showed why recycling is better than landfill. But sometimes people still ask us about the environmental effects of our whole process, including the environmental impact of getting the items back to us to recycle.

Our engineers regularly conduct Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) of our process that is then third party reviewed.  An LCA is a way of analysing the environmental impact of a product or process throughout its different stages, and testing various scenarios in those stages to see which produces the best outcome.  All of our LCAs are reviewed by an independent third party to verify the accuracy of the research and how we’ve interpreted the results.

For example, in a recent LCA looking at post-consumer flexible film (such as snack wrappers) we looked at a variety of different ways we collect the waste: freight (commercial quantities), Zero Waste Boxes, public collection recycling (community recycling) and mail-back programs (individual recycling). 

The assessment considered aspects including the environmental costs of production and transportation of collection boxes (if applicable), transportation of waste to our check-in and sorting facilities, the sorting and recycling process, and the production of products from the recycled material that results. To ensure a fair comparison, the production of the same amount of products from virgin plastic was added to the local waste management scenarios. This LCA was verified by an independent specialist auditor, Long Trail Sustainability.

Our recycling models outperformed municipal waste management options by an average of 45 percent across eight key impact categories, including global warming potential, human carcinogenic toxicity, and fossil resource scarcity, primarily by avoiding the extraction of virgin material for new product development. 

In fact, our recycling models have lower environmental impacts when compared to the municipal waste management models across all categories considered in this study.

Results for TerraCycle’s Recycling Models

TerraCycle models compared to municipal incineration modelsTerraCycle models compared to municipal landfill models
Global Warming Potential68% lower29% lower
Ozone Formation – Human Health52% lower49% lower
Human Carcinogenic Toxicity43% lower33% lower
Human Non-Carcinogenic Toxicity22% lower67% lower
Freshwater Eutrophication22% lower21% lower
Freshwater Ecotoxicity43% lower78% lower
Fossil Resource Scarcity       68% lower69% lower
Water Consumption50% lower49% lower

Our CEO Tom Szaky said that science-driven decision making is central to how we operate, as both recycling and reuse are not just about waste reduction, but also about helping mitigate climate change. “As a company, for nearly two decades, we have and will continue to take the life cycle analysis of our platforms seriously and strive to maintain as a net negative carbon footprint organisation.”

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