Tom Szaky

Founder & CEO of Terracycle

By Tom Szaky

Founder & CEO of Terracycle

Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, an international leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste.

Image by Giada Canu / Stocksy

July 3, 2023

Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may

earn a small commission.

If you’re confused about recycling, you’re not alone: There are mixed messages out there. On the one hand, we hear about recycling being a panacea—the solution to waste. On the other, we increasingly see headlines that “plastic recycling doesn’t work and never will” or “plastic recycling is a dead end.”

So, which side is right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. In the end, recycling is an important part of moving toward a circular economy, but it’s also not the silver bullet to end the waste crisis. It’s an important tool we must continue to use while also working to reduce waste overall.


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

As someone who works in the industry, here’s what people often get wrong about recycling and the real truth hiding behind those misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Most things are “unrecyclable”

You’re only allowed to throw certain things in your recycling bin. Depending on where you live, accepted items are probably limited to aluminum cans, paper, clean cardboard, plastics #1 and #2, and sometimes glass jars.

Does that mean everything else is “unrecyclable”? Not really.

It’s possible to recycle pretty much anything, but some things are just more costly to recycle than others. For instance, multi-component items like a juice pouch (which has layers of plastic and aluminum) are more expensive to recycle, and, in most cases, cost more to recycle than the resulting material can be sold for.

In the end, if the cost of collecting and processing an item is higher than the profit that can be made from recycling it, it simply won’t be recycled.

Misconception 2: Recycling companies are the problem

Recycling companies are for-profit companies. They’re in business to make a profit for their shareholders, not to solve the waste crisis. Think of them as “urban mining companies,” extracting profitable material from the waste we generate. 

Another good comparison is a junk hauler. When you call one to clear out your house, they might be able to buy some items from you, like a beautiful grand piano (which they would then resell), but you’ll have to pay them to take everything else away (and they’ll take it to a landfill or incinerator). 

So saying that your neighborhood recyclers are the problem is not fair—they’re just doing their job like everybody else.


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Misconception 3: Recycling doesn’t work

Is the recycling business model fundamentally broken since most of our waste isn’t recycled? 

Recycling actually works very well when the business equation is favorable, as it often is for paper, cardboard, aluminum, and some plastics. But, as we’ve seen, that’s not the case for many other items. And what’s accepted for recycling varies from location to location, depending on factors such as community size and distance to end markets for materials (both of which affect a recycler’s profitability).

That’s why recycling is not a silver bullet solution to the waste crisis. However, it’s still an incredibly important part of moving toward a circular economy, in which we eliminate waste through reuse, repair, remanufacture, and recycling. 

Recycling has major environmental benefits (it reduces the need to extract virgin materials from the planet and prevents trash from being landfilled or littered), and it also allows valuable material to be reused in new products instead of sitting in landfills or being incinerated.

The only real solution to the waste crisis is for all of us to buy less and purchase durable, reusable items instead of disposable ones.

Misconception 4: We shouldn’t bother trying to recycle

As you’ve gathered by now, recycling isn’t a perfect solution—but it’s still absolutely worth doing. You can be confident that your local recycling company is recycling items it can make a profit on (which are typically the specific items it tells you to put in your recycling bin). And keeping these items out of landfills is a win for the planet.

And when it comes to the rest of your trash, there are solutions for recycling that too. At TerraCycle, we can accept traditionally hard-to-recycle items (like juice pouches, mascara wands, and cigarette butts) because we partner with brands, retailers, and other stakeholders to fund the recycling process. 


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Misconception 5: Recycling can’t get any better

Our current recycling system isn’t the best it can be. It could become much more effective, but that will take action from all actors: citizens, brands, retailers, governments, and activists.

Our system currently operates as an open loop, as the main actors are generally not required to take circular action. Manufacturers don’t have to make their products and packaging easy to recycle or include recycled content in production. Retailers can stock their shelves with whatever they choose, including lots of very hard-to-recycle products. The consumer that buys a product has no legal obligation to recycle it (if it’s even recyclable), and even if they do put something in a recycling bin, the recycling company isn’t legally required to recycle it either. The only factors driving each actor are cost and convenience.

We can address this through voluntary and mandatory action on the part of each actor. 

How we can move forward


We ultimately need to buy less and buy more responsibly. But it’s hard, impossible for some, to go completely zero waste. So we must recycle as much as we can locally and through other methods when possible. It’s also our responsibility to increase the volume of recycling (by choosing recycling rather than the landfill) and to ensure the quality of that volume by only putting accepted items in our recycling bins. 


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Isn’t it interesting that we get fined for littering but not for sending trash to landfills? 

This can all be encouraged through recycling education and by not amplifying misconceptions about recycling. Legislation could also be considered. Isn’t it interesting that we get fined for littering but not for sending trash to landfills? 


Some brands have been taking voluntary action to address hard-to-recycle waste. And many have improved the accuracy of recyclability labeling, made their products or packaging locally recyclable, or created recycling programs through third parties. However, we can see from initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment that while important, voluntary action isn’t driving enough action. Ultimately, we need legislation to make these choices mandatory. 

Legislation has been slow, but now it’s ramping up fast around the world. California recently passed Senate Bill 343, which calls for “truth in recycling” by regulating the word “recyclable” and the chasing arrows symbol on packaging. In many countries, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which require producers to contribute to the costs associated with recycling the packaging they put on the market, are being introduced or signed into law. In some areas, producers are also required to include a certain percentage of recycled content in new products. 

Consumers can encourage voluntary progress by voting with our dollars for brands that adopt sustainable measures. Even more importantly, we can accelerate mandatory progress by contacting our legislators.


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.


Retailers can voluntarily decide to purchase products from brands taking the voluntary actions described above. Take a look at Tesco in the UK, which has moved to ban any packaging materials that can’t be easily recycled from its shelves. Retailers can also choose to offer on-site recycling solutions, as Walmart has done with its Community Recycling Hub, a partnership with TerraCycle. 

Some U.S. states and cities as well as countries around the globe do mandate that retailers offer in-store recycling of items like plastic bags. Otherwise, retailers don’t have to take responsibility for the products they offer to consumers. 

If all of these voluntary and mandatory efforts were to happen, recyclers would recycle so much more. But each actor is a fundamental dependency; they all have to play together.

Each actor also needs to nurture innovators in the sustainable waste management space. Compared to industries like consumer packaged goods and electronics, there’s very little innovation in waste. Startups like Recyclops, Litterati, Loop, and Algramo must be supported so we can move beyond our current inadequate systems.

The takeaway

While we all must work to reduce our consumption, recycling will continue to be necessary into the future. Let’s recognize recycling’s benefits while also acknowledging its limitations as we push toward a truly circular world.