Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I was catching up with some colleagues at TerraCycle HQ in Trenton. The conversation turned to then President-elect Donald J. Trump. The topic was centered on the question of how the new administration would affect environmental policy and global action plans for sustainability. More specifically, how would a Trump presidency affect TerraCycle?
Given the environmental platform that the current president campaigned on last year, it was clear that, if elected, a President Trump would significantly alter the direction taken by the previous Administration. One pre-election promise was the cancellation or renegotiation of the United States’ participation in the Paris Agreement, a global climate change deal hinging on increased regulations for the reduction of carbon emissions. Another was the eradication of the Clean Power Plan, which regulates emissions from power plants.
In less than a month since President Trump took office, there have been reports of EPA employees being banned from giving social media updates, speaking with press and interacting with Congress and public amid the grants and contracts freeze. Actions taken with regards to advancing the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines by executive order signal the possibility of expanded support for U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for domestic energy production.
That TerraCycle is an environmentally-minded company on a mission to move away from the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ way of doing things in favor of more circular and/or sustainable production systems, might question how TerraCycle would operate under the new direction favored by this Administration.
So will a Trump presidency negatively affect TerraCycle? The deep irony is that the answer is ‘No.’
The services TerraCycle offers are built to circumvent and address the economic and structural limitations of currently inefficient public waste management systems. As it stands in the U.S. and most countries around the world, public works sees most “waste” outputs falling outside the scope of recyclability (aka resource recovery), tracking them for landfilling or incineration. This is because the value of most items cannot be sold on back-end channels for more than the cost of collection, logistics and processing in these publicly funded systems, providing no economic incentive to recycle them because of the lack of profit.
However, a report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation finds that since most plastic packaging is used only once, 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. The current value system may not view recycling as a profitable business, but the fact is, not recycling is wasting money.
Diverting potentially valuable resources from being lost to the economy requires its own set of resources that the public system does not currently have. TerraCycle works with other companies, manufacturers and major brands to sponsor solutions for difficult-to-recycle waste streams in every country in which we operate, effectively providing the technology, the infrastructure, logistics and funding required to recover materials and feed them back into the value system.
Our stake partnership with SUEZ, the largest waste management company in Europe, is a demonstration of how TerraCycle’s expertise in making the “unrecyclable” nationally recyclable acts as a sweeping, profitable supplement to public systems. Our consumer-facing program structures are now available to SUEZ’s customers in France, the UK, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden, thereby expanding upon its services and adding value using our platforms.
While TerraCycle proves that infrastructure, not science, is the limitation preventing most of the world’s waste from being recycled, this presidency will make clear that innovation and competitiveness do not suffer, but flourish, under new conditions set forth by public administrations. Companies have the opportunity to step up their CSR initiatives despite decreased social and environmental regulations, acting as advocates and problem solvers in the face of rising expectations.
More and more, businesses are measured by their commitment to not only corporate social responsibility, but to creating social impacts. And TerraCycle, in our dedication to accelerating circular economy principles, will not only remain on track, but hopefully serve as an example for other entities in both the public and private sector.