Mail-Back Recycling Schemes Don't Work Nearly As Well As You'd Like to Believe

A new lawsuit involving TerraCycle reveals greenwashing and nebulous claims.

loading UPS truck with boxes
Loading boxes into a UPS truck in New York City.

Getty Images/Noam Galai

Mail-back recycling schemes are a terrible idea, according to Jan Dell. The independent engineer and founder of an NGO called The Last Beach Cleanup is so irate at the greenwashing generated by these schemes, that her organization has launched a lawsuit against TerraCycle, the most well-known proponent of mail-back recycling, and eight other product companies, including Gerber, Clorox, Tom's of Maine, Procter & Gamble, and Coca-Cola. The lawsuit calls on these companies to stop advertising, marketing, and labeling hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of products as being recyclable when the numbers really don't add up. 

Mail-back programs involve filling a box with discarded packaging that's typically hard to recycle, such as condiment sachets, chip bags, toothbrushes, and more, and sending it to a third-party recycler like TerraCycle for processing. Consumers are told that their waste gets turned into useful items like park benches and picnic tables—despite the obvious fact that these items have a finite lifespan and will eventually get sent to landfills since plastic can only ever be downcycled and turned into a lesser version of itself.

These mail-back programs are still not widely used, but Dell doesn't want them to be because they make little sense. She describes them in a press release as a "major climate fail," based on calculations that were done jointly with Beyond Plastics, as part of a fact sheet published in June 2021:

"[We assessed] the carbon emissions and packaging waste of four types of common single-use plastic products if they were to be mailed back in cardboard boxes at scale nationwide—condiment packets, chip bags, plastic cups, and plastic cutlery. The carbon emissions from mailing back 6.6 billion condiment packets would be 104,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly equal to the annual carbon emissions of 23,000 US cars. Shipping back 60% of the snack bags made by one US manufacturer would be equal to the annual carbon emissions of roughly 580,000 US cars."

This means that trucking millions of boxes of used plastic products across the country would only "speed the rise in global temperatures as we creep ever closer to the 1.5˚C increase that scientists agree we must stay within to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

The Last Beach Cleanup takes issue with a few key facts. The main one is that many companies claim their product packaging is recyclable through TerraCycle or another program, and yet have limited numbers for participation in the mail-back program, likely due to the exorbitant cost of shipping boxes via UPS. As Dell explained in an email to Treehugger, "In the lawsuit, we allege that it is illegal to label and claim that products are recyclable if there are participation limits." 

She herself was put on a 9-month waitlist to mail back Late July corn chips (owned by Campbell's Soup) for recycling. "During that time, Campbell’s Soup continued to sell millions of corn chip bags labeled as 'recyclable' and continued to claim on their website that the corn chips bags are recyclable. This deceptive label issue is the main issue in the complaint."

Late July chip bag
Late July chip bag, ready for shipping to get recycled. Jan Dell/The Last Beach Cleanup

People who wish to bypass the waitlist can purchase an expensive "zero waste" box they can fill with products in need of recycling, but that's a cost they should not have to incur. From the lawsuit document: "Left with no other free choices, consumers then need to discard the packaging into the trash where it will ultimately end up in a landfill. Worse yet, some consumers instead discard the packaging into their curbside recycling bins, thereby contaminating legitimate recycling streams with unrecyclable materials and increasing costs for municipalities."

The second point of contention is the claim by TerraCycle that most of the plastic it receives gets recycled. Considering that PET bottles only have a 70% recycling rate (with 30% lost as wastage in reprocessing), due to technical complexities and the high cost of reprocessing, TerraCycle's claim that 97% of its plastic gets repurposed raised a red flag for The Last Beach Cleanup. When proof was requested, TerraCycle removed the claim from its website, but the inaccurate impression of widespread recycling remains.

The lawsuit points out that the mail-back recycling business model encourages companies to keep producing packaging made from hard-to-recycle materials and customers to keep buying those products because they're convinced it's fine for the environment. This diverts energy and attention away from packaging innovation that could make a truly positive difference. Dell writes, "By giving the impression to the public that the products are recyclable, consumers are being misled to believe that they are 'green' products when they could be purchasing products that are more environmentally friendly."

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator, stated in a press release: "Some companies are cynically exploiting Americans' commitment to reducing plastic pollution by setting up mail-back programs for items that are not designed to be recycled. Unfortunately, mailing used plastic packaging and products all over the country does not make sense from either an environmental or a financial perspective making this another industry-touted false solution to our plastic waste crisis."

chip bag closeup
Chip bag is "recyclable with TerraCycle" when mailed back. Jan Dell/The Last Beach Cleanup

The Last Beach Cleanup would like to see the focus shift away from mail-back recycling schemes and more toward pressuring companies to design packaging that can be recycled in local facilities (not needing to be trucked thousands of miles across the country) and advocating for reusable, refillable, and zero waste solutions—all of which are feasible but will never become mainstream as long as the status quo of disposability is upheld by impractical recycling schemes like this. 

Plastic pollution has increased dramatically in recent years, with an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced in the last decade. Most of this ends up as trash or pollution; only an estimated 9% has been recycled, and it's not getting better. The recycling rate in California has dropped from 50% in 2014 to 37% in 2019.

Plastic pollution causes tremendous environmental, social, and economic harm as well. The lawsuit lists "misery and death to over 100 species; toxins to leach into the environment and our food chain; vulnerability to extreme weather events because storm drains are clogged with plastic; costs to taxpayers for litter collection; blight on our landscapes; [and] spread of disease vectors such as dengue fever" as reasons for why companies and policy-makers should work to phase it out as quickly as possible.

Mail-back recycling schemes do not address the plastic problem. Rather, they perpetuate it by postponing the inevitable discard that must happen, while emitting more greenhouse gases through transportation and creating a false sense of environmental complacency in consumers. Surely we can do better than this. 

View Article Sources
  1. Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. "Plastic Pollution." Our World in Data, 2018.

  2. "State of Disposal and Recycling for Calendar Year 2019." CalRecycle, 2021.