Fellow Reports from the Field

Capital Institute fellow Liana Scobie has taken a job at the innovative company TerraCycle and has sent us these thoughts from the field on how their work is making a real diferences in the core areas of Capital Institute’s focus – sustainability for a full world and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Proof That It Is Working

On January 12, 60 employees at TerraCycle stopped their regular work to stuff 3,500 charitable donation checks into envelopes.

At TerraCycle, our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. We do this by creating national recycling systems for previously non-recyclable and otherwise impossible-to-recycle waste. Currently operating in over 20 countries with the participation of more than 26 million people, we have been able to divert 2.2 billion used items from landfills through recycling and upcycling for reuse.
For every piece of waste sent to us, we donate $0.02 to a charity, or school, of the sender’s choice. These donations are made twice yearly.  Last week, as part of this biannual cycle, nearly $600,000 was distributed from our home office in Trenton, NJ to charities across the United States.
The check stuffing party was a great hit with our staff.  Gathered together as a group, formed into a production line, we saw direct evidence of how valuable our daily hard work really is. On the typical day, each team of employees approaches the TerraCycle mission from a different functional responsibility, including business development, design, operations, and marketing. During the hours we spent stuffing checks, it was tangible just how critical each of our parts is to the whole.
Some may take philosophical issue with our business model and mode of operation based on the mistaken assumption that shipping garbage creates a larger carbon footprint than the traditional landfill model.  However, on the waste hierarchy, transporting waste releases only a fraction of the emissions compared to raw materials processing. Recycling and upcycling actually average negative emissions. Others may take the position that we are enabling the use of “non-recyclable” packaging by providing an environmentally responsible outlet for its disposal—yet we are finding ways to recycle every waste stream, and the producers are paying for it. Still others may believe that we are not a social enterprise because of our strong environmental focus.
However, as a sustainable business, our entrepreneurial solutions to the pressing problem of waste have provided a path to economic success with ongoing equal consideration given to environmental and social outcomes. As we expand based on global demand, we have become one of the fastest-growing green companies in the world while maintaining a clear focus on our underlying purpose and established goals.  “Sponsored Waste” has proven to be a thriving business strategy for TerraCycle with obvious direct benefits for the environment.  The multiplier effects are only now beginning to be felt as more and more organizations become involved in our waste collection efforts, or the marketing and sale of our reused waste products.
As employees of TerraCycle, we are primarily bound together by our shared commitment to a unique and unconventional company.  However, the very special experience of stuffing those donation checks into envelopes addressed to so many schools and charities offered a compelling affirmation that it is possible for a business to achieve economic success while making a valuable contribution to furthering environmental sustainability and a fair society.—Liana Scobie.