06/02/2014 08:05 am ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

Participatory Environmentalism in Hungary

The environmental movement has long stressed the importance of personal responsibility. What we do as individuals might seem trivial when set against the huge complex systems that regulate the earth. But if enough individuals change their habits, it can make a difference. And so we do what we can: turn down our thermostats, install insulation, reduce our consumption of meat, bicycle to work. And we also separate our waste in order to participate in municipal recycling.

Recycling is a profoundly modern concept. In the pre-industrial era, objects were too valuable to simply throw away, so they were constantly being repaired or repurposed. As consumer culture began to develop, our economic growth became predicated on the planned obsolescence of the objects we bought. If our cars lasted 100 years, the industry would radically shrink in size.

Only with the limits imposed by the energy crisis and now the climate change crisis has recycling become obligatory in many parts of the world. The range of recyclables has also widened dramatically over the years beyond just paper, cans, and bottles. San Francisco, for instance, now requires the recycling of food scraps. Through its overall recycling and composting program, the city keeps 80 percent of its waste out of landfill - compared to a national average of 35 percent - and is aiming for 100 percent.

TerraCycle aims to expand the recycling range even further, and it relies even more on the spirit of voluntarism. "Our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste," TerraCycle's Daniel German told me in an interview last May in the company's Budapest office. "We collect materials and garbage that are technically recyclable but no one thinks they're recyclable. They just toss it into landfill or incinerate it."

The first TerraCycle project in Hungary involved collecting chocolate wrappers. It required the participation of thousands of individuals. "Our first program, the chocolate program, more than 8,000 people participated: schools, offices, kindergartens," German explained. "In many schools, the teachers use our program to teach the kids the importance of recycling. They can experience on their own: throw it in this bin, not that bin. It's pretty simple."

The participating institutions send the wrappers to TerraCycle. "We store the wrappers in a warehouse until we have a large amount," German continued. "Our R & D department has figured out how we can recycle those wrappers with already existing technology. When we have enough wrappers, we pelletize them. And those pellets are a secondary raw material that's cheaper than virgin plastic material. It can be used to make pet bowls, buckets, and so on. We recycle the material in the country where it is collected -- we don't want to ship the waste around."

German filled me in on the overall recycling situation in Hungary as well as TerraCycle's other projects and the company's business model.

The Interview

Tell me about TerraCycle and what your role is.

TerraCycle is a very special company. Our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. We collect materials and garbage that are technically recyclable but no one thinks they're recyclable. They just toss it into landfill or incinerate it. I encountered TerraCycle in the United States. I got a scholarship when I graduated here at Godollo, where I studied environmental engineering. I focused on recycling and waste management.

After I graduated, I decided that I had to go somewhere else to see what people do in other countries. The United States is maybe not the best place to learn about waste management. But there was this scholarship, so I decided to go. I lived in the UK for a year and in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, the waste management system is really advanced. But the boss I was working with told me I had to go over to the US to see how people are thinking over there.

My plan was to get an internship in San Francisco. I knew there are a lot of Green projects there. But I ended up in New Jersey. You can imagine that wasn't my top choice. But it was close to New York and Philly.

Where in New Jersey?


Wow, Trenton.

Yeah. TerraCycle accepted me at the R & D department. We were trying to figure out what to do with cigarette butts, how to recycle them. My first day at the office, the vice president of global R & D welcomed me and introduced me to the CEO. And I was really surprised because the CEO is a Hungarian guy. His parents emigrated to Canada. He studied at Princeton, but he quit after the second year to start the company. Now it's in 26 countries around the world. It was funny to go overseas and talk to the CEO in Hungarian.

In Hungary we started our first program on Earth Day on April 22. We started to collect chocolate wrappers.

The tin foil?

It's plastic-based flexible packaging. Two months ago, we launched our second program: salted snack packages like chip wrappers. It looks like we'll launch our cigarette butt program tomorrow. People in restaurants, bars, and offices can sign up, collect cigarette butts, and sent them to us to be recycled.

This requires people to participate. It's not you going around the streets and collecting the butts.

That's right. There are many groups thinking about how to solve this issue because the cigarette regulations recently changed. From last April you cannot smoke in bars, only in front of the bars. So, this kind of waste is concentrated in different spots. If there is no service provided for collecting and recycling this waste, people will just toss their butts on the street, which is not a good option.

What is the recycling situation in Hungary? Is there separation of household waste?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.