Liz Pinfield-Wells was about to feed her infant son, Albert, when she looked down at the plastic pouch of baby food in her hand.
The answer, she found, was no.
“It’s quite limited,” she said about the recycling service in her town, Telford, located in Shropshire, England.
In Britain, recycling is coordinated by local governments, which is similar to the United States, where different municipalities have their own recycling operations and rules.
She was disturbed at the idea of tossing the pouches, thinking they’d end up in a landfill or incinerator somewhere.
“Once you have children, it does give you quite a different perspective on the world," said Pinfield-Wells, a mother of three, explaining she’s always cared about the environment, but being a mother supercharged her desire to protect the planet.
Since the plastic pouches were not included in the town’s curbside collection service — which does not accept plastic bags, hard plastic toys, bubble wrap, cardboard and chip bags, among other waste — Pinfield-Wells began researching alternative recycling options. She was adamant about not throwing the plastic packets in the trash, as she was going through several a day.
Pinfield-Wells stumbled upon a news story about a U.K. family that set up a recycling drop-off site outside their home in Nuneaton, a town about 55 miles away. They collected hard-to-recycle items, such as coffee pods and toothbrushes, and sent the trash to recycling companies, including U.S.-based TerraCycle, which turns the waste into raw material that can be made into new products.
At the time, the family’s efforts had stopped more than a ton of plastic from ending up in incinerators. Pinfield-Wells was intrigued.
“I thought, that’s the sort of thing I could do here because I have the space to do it,” she said.
So she set up several bins on her driveway and began spreading the word to neighbors and friends, letting them know they could drop off certain waste items, like baby food pouches, dental products, chip bags, bread bags, Pringles tubes and cookie wrappers.
Since starting the effort in 2019, she has collected nearly 2 tons — or 4,000 pounds — of waste that would otherwise likely be sitting in a landfill, floating in a waterway or incinerated.
As a volunteer for TerraCycle’s recycling program, she collects and sorts the waste, and the company handles the shipping costs and recycling process.
Not long after Pinfield-Wells set up her makeshift collection site, people began regularly stopping by to drop off their recycling.
“It’s very satisfying to be able to reduce the amount of waste your household is producing,” said Pinfield-Wells, who is an adult-care-support worker, looking after people with developmental and learning disabilities. She is also a trustee with Climate Action Hub Telford, a local charity that informs the community about climate issues and offers solutions.
Once a month, she sorts through the waste and weighs it, to make sure she has garnered the minimum amount required — which is different for each category — to donate it to TerraCycle, or other recycling companies. Then, she packages it and waits for it to be collected by a United Parcel Service carrier.
“Our whole goal as an organization is to be a mission-driven waste management company, where we’re trying to find circular solutions where they don’t exist today,” said Tom Szaky, the chief executive officer and founder of TerraCycle, which has been operating for 22 years and is available in 21 countries.
While some volunteers set up recycling sites at their homes, others offer to manage them in public spaces, such as schools, churches and community centers.
TerraCycle receives funding from various places or companies, such as cities, retailers and some individual businesses, a structure that allows it to run its recycling programs, Szaky said.
While the company tries to make the service convenient and accessible for people, “it comes down to the volunteers that say ‘let’s do it,’” he said, adding that there are roughly 25,000 volunteers around the world. “They are the front line.”
Once waste is collected, it’s taken to one of the company’s 35 check-in facilities, where the parts are separated and made into a raw material that can be repurposed by a manufacturer. For instance, recycled plastic is made into plastic pellets, which the company then sells to plastic manufacturers. The same process is carried out with aluminum and other materials.
“What we’re really focused on as an organization is working with our funders to get them to take the waste back and integrate it into the product that it began with, so you’re keeping it in the same cycle,” he said.
TerraCycle works with companies and manufacturers to make refillable versions of single-use products, such as olive oil bottles, ice cream tubs and ketchup containers.
“It’s important to note that recycling is a good solution to waste,” Szaky said, “but we should avoid waste as much as we can.”
Based on the amount of recycling they collect, volunteers receive TerraCycle points, which may be redeemed as a donation to a school or charity. Since becoming a volunteer, Pinfield-Wells has raised more than $1,200 toward equipment for her daughter’s small gymnastics club.
Although Pinfield-Wells began with only a few bins on her driveway, she now has a garden shed on her front lawn with 31 different categories of items, including snack wrappers, wax crayons, hygiene products, plastic bank cards, gift bags and wine corks.
“It’s just gradually grown,” said Pinfield-Wells, explaining that in addition to word-of-mouth, her initiative has also reached local residents through a Facebook group she created, called TerraCycle Telford, which now has nearly 1,000 members.
For some items that TerraCycle doesn’t collect, including bank cards and printer ink cartridges, Pinfield-Wells has found other recycling companies, including Empties Please, to collect the waste.
Which items are eligible for government recycling services can be confusing, as the programs are a patchwork of regulations across the U.S. and elsewhere.
“It’s still very regional,” explained Margaret Sobkowicz Kline, a professor of plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Local authorities, she said, often have contracts with waste collection services, each of which have their own facilities, protocols and recycling capabilities.
In general, though, plastics #1 and #2 (food and beverage containers, as well as other plastic bottles, bins and crates) are “universally pretty well recyclable across the U.S.,” she said, adding that many of the same things that are considered non-recyclable in Telford — including chip bags and pens — are also non-recyclable in the United States. “If you dig deeper, there will be more nuances.”
Collecting recycling as an individual is a lot of work, Pinfield-Wells said, but it is well worth it.
“There’s no cost to me, other than my time,” she said, adding that she does pay for packing tape — though many neighbors donate rolls here and there to contribute to the cause.
“If I ask for help, people are usually very willing to help,” said Pinfield-Wells.
Empty medicine blister packets, for example, must be taken to a local pharmacy to be recycled, and neighbors regularly offer to drop them off. Although she started the initiative on her own, she said, it has become a community effort.
Plus, Pinfield-Wells said, she has inspired others to create their own recycling sites. Her sister, who lives about five miles away, started a recycling station at her home, too.
“I think it’s really good that people are so interested,” Pinfield-Wells said. “Once they realize that you can recycle all these things, it is quite life-changing.”