Friday, February 4, 2011

Another semi-ecofrugal idea

The same TipHero article that led me to yesterday's discovery of carbon credits for individuals today steered me toward another site that appears, on the surface, to be a model of ecofrugality. The company is called Terracycle, and what it does is collect trash that can't be recycled—juice packs, candy wrappers, Ziploc bags—and "upcycle" it into new products. Most recycled materials end up being "downcycled," or turned into a new product with lower value than the original (for example, office paper and cardboard being shredded for use as packaging material). Terracycle's products, by contrast, are allegedly worth more than the waste materials they're made from. Among the products for sale on their site are a cork board made from used wine corks, a backpack made from Capri-Sun pouches, and an insulated cooler made from Starburst wrappers. The waste materials they use are collected by individuals across the country, who get rewarded for their efforts with a semiannual check to a school or charity of their choice.

I don't deny that this is a very clever idea, and at first blush, it seems very ecofrugal as well. After all, they're taking waste and turning it into useful products, right? Isn't preventing waste the very definition of ecofrugality? Yet the more I browse the site and learn about its products, the more I'm convinced it's not for me.

The first problem I have with it is that so many of the waste materials they collect are for specific name-brand products, such as M&M/Mars-branded candy wrappers, Aveeno beauty product packages, and Neosporin tubes. This means that an ecofrugal person like myself, who prefers store brands, will have a hard time collecting enough of anything to fill a container. And many of these branded packages get upcycled into new products that still bear the brand's name, like Oreo three-ring binders and Clif Bar pencil cases. So Terracycle products are actually a form of advertising for the companies whose materials they use. They serve to promote brand loyalty, which in turn undermines the ecofrugal habits of choosing store brands and cooking from scratch.

Second, even the materials they collect that aren't branded tend to be in some way wasteful. They don't ask for a specific brand of juice pouches, for instance, but all juice pouches, regardless of brand, are absurdly overpackaged. It's much cheaper to buy juice in a big bottle, or better yet in a tube of frozen concentrate to be mixed with water, and both options produce far less packaging waste. I can't help thinking it must be better, in terms of full-cycle environmental costs, to avoid excess packaging in the first place than to assuage your guilt by sending off the wasteful packages to be made into new products. Even if the juice pouches stay out of the waste stream, they still require more materials and energy to produce, ship to stores, ship back to Terracycle, and upcycle into new products than other, cheaper alternatives.

Admittedly, there are some products here that an ecofrugal person might use, such as zip-top plastic bags. There are always some occasions when reusable containers aren't practical. But most ecofrugalites would prefer to save money and resources by rinsing and reusing the bags, and continuing to reuse them until they develop holes. Perhaps they could still be Terracycled at that point, but it does seem like encouraging people to send their bags to Terracycle for "upcycling" after just one use is tacitly discouraging reuse at home (which is much easier to do and wastes no energy on shipping).

My final quibble, and perhaps the most serious, is that many of the products sold by Terracycle don't actually seem to be that useful. Turning a bunch of candy wrappers into a pencil case isn't really preventing waste if the person who buys that pencil case didn't need it in the first place. On the contrary, it's just adding a new level of wastefulness, because now in addition to the materials and energy used to produce and ship the original candy wrappers, you have the energy (and probably some additional materials) required to produce and ship the pencil case to a new owner who was doing just fine without it—not to mention the waste of money on a product that isn't really necessary. Admittedly, some of these products are necessary, like a backpack or notebooks for school—but wouldn't it be more ecofrugal to buy a sturdy canvas backpack and keep it for several years, repairing it as needed, than to buy a new cheap backpack every year, even if it does have recycled cookie wrappers in it?

Perhaps I'm not being really fair to TerraCycle. After all, the majority of consumers probably are going to buy candy bars and juice pouches anyway, and replace their school supplies yearly—and given that, it's probably less wasteful for those candy wrappers and juice pouches to get turned into new school supplies than simply used once and discarded. (I say "probably" because, without an accurate tally of the complete life-cycle energy costs, there's no way to know for sure whether these upcycled products actually require less material and energy to make and ship than would be used in simply landfilling the wastes—or incinerating them to recover some of their value as energy.) But I still feel convinced that those of us who are truly ecofrugal—who already take steps to save money, avoid packaging waste, and buy durable products that will last—will have very little to gain by either sending waste to Terracycle or buying products from them.
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