I’ve been quite enamoured with the company TerraCycle since I learned about them sometime in the last year in the National Geographic article where they explained how they’re making park benches out of disposed cigarette butts. After seeing the Al Jazeera Earthrise episode focusing on them, I wanted to know more about how they operate.

I learned that the founder of this company, Tom Szaky, is quite savvy with public relations. Not only has he written three books (and his colleague, who runs design at TerraCycle, Tiffany Threadgould, has one book), but he has also been a part of a reality programme about his company that has run for two seasons thus far. The show is called Human Resources, and although I am not a fan of this genre of TV, I found it to be quite engaging. In every episode, I learned something new about waste and saw how this company tried to find ways to reuse and/or repurpose the raw materials of items that are most commonly thought of as non-recyclable. This includes cigarette butts, sanitary napkins, chewing gum, and all sorts of other products.

What I also like about this company, which you can see in the show, is that they are partnering with various businesses to “close the gap”; in other words, they want to make sure that companies producing products, especially plastics, can get reused or repurposed in some way. By getting the company to buy into this paradigm, Szaky helps shift the burden of recycling from consumer to producer. Ultimately, as their tagline or motto states, “We’re eliminating the idea of waste”. This is admirable, especially since if they do their jobs correctly, they’ll work themselves into unemployment. And that’s how it should be if you want to make change. That’s why NGOs are counterproductive; they are often more invested in maintaining their own organisation and livelihood than in reducing or eliminating the problem that got them into that work to begin with.

I’ve now read two books by Szaky. One is Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It and the other is Make Garbage Great: The TerraCycle Family Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle. I found both (the latter is a coffee table book with tons of infographics, timelines, and activities, which can be terrific for educating children) engaging and useful, although the number one problem with these books is that the emphasis is not on reduction. He does bring it up, but not nearly enough.

Threadgould’s book, ReMake It!: Recycling Projects from the Stuff you Usually Scrap, which I just finished today, is a craft book. It helps you see the value in your trash and teaches you how to make new things out of them–most of them are quite kid-friendly projects. Here, too, however, I wish the emphasis was on making new items that are useful so you’re reusing something. There are a few such projects in her book: magazine envelopes, newspaper gift bags, record album folder, plastic plant markers and container planters, pillow case art supply holder, cargo pants yoga mat bag, comforter laptop cover, and the t-shirt rug are a few examples of those items.

I’ve noticed with upcycling and my students that they often have great fun making things, but then they want to toss the item as soon as they are done. Unless they are making useful items the trash stays trash to a certain extent.

The one item where this seems to be different are the yearbooks or scrapbooks (see above) that they make at the ned of the school year for their friends to write in. Many of the girls took old kurtas and blue jeans to make covers for them (it would be even greater if they used paper that was already used on one side too!). They look great, and because they have a sentimental value, they won’t wind up in the trash again.



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