What happens to your tossed chip bags? How one company is tackling our waste problem

Company targets hard to recycle items
Company targets hard to recycle items 06:17

The coast of southwest England shines pristine from above. But buried in its rocky crevices are scraps of trash.

Emily Stevenson, who is 21, has spent nearly half her life cleaning up those shores. She said she's finding more plastic than she did 10 years ago, including bag after perfectly preserved bag of chips. The first Walkers chips packet that she found – known to Americans as Lay's – was as old as she was. 

Because bags of chips are made of metalicized plastic, they're hard to recycle, which is why they often wash up on shores.

Stevenson decided to take action by making a dress out of old Walkers bags, the United Kingdom's biggest potato chip brand. She wore her creation to her college graduation last year, and used the attention to push people to protest by mailing their empty bags of chips back to the company. Walkers promised more environmentally friendly packaging by 2025, but Emily said that would be too late.

"I just thought it was crazy that TerraCycle was already able to recycle crisp packets. Why aren't they working together?" Stevenson said.

TerraCycle is a New Jersey-based company taking on trash around the world. Its founder, Tom Szaky, dropped out of Princeton University because he believed waste was an untapped treasure.

"There is just a huge amount of opportunity in waste," Szaky said.

He said what they do is "relatively uninnovative." TerraCycle collects hard-to-recycle debris like cigarette butts and, yes, bags of chips, for free. People can also pay to send in their used packaging. TerraCycle then sorts through the material and turns it into plastic pellets, which manufacturers buy to make products like watering cans and picnic tables.

"We take materials, rip them apart, look at the molecules that make them up. And with some of the great scientists we have here, we can figure out how we put them back together and what we can use them for," said Rick Zultner, who heads up TerraCycle's lab.

TerraCycle has recycled millions of pounds of waste plastic and materials throughout its lifetime, according to Zultner, but critics point out that it's a small portion of the more than eight billion metric tons of plastic produced globally since the 1950s, most of which has not been recycled. They also say TerraCycle is giving businesses an excuse to keep using single-use packaging.

"Companies who work with TerraCycle are taking a voluntary step to create a better outcome for their waste than doing nothing at all. Really what they should do is design their way out of it,"  Szaky said.

Asked if they're planning to motivate companies to do that, he said, "Absolutely. In fact the new model we just launched called Loop does exactly that."

Loop offers a new way to shop with big-name brands selling items like wet wipes, deodorant and ice cream in reusable containers. You pay a deposit, and they arrive at your door. When they're done, the company picks them up, cleans the containers and uses them again. But reusable packaging also carries an environmental cost.

"The environmental impact of a steel container is much higher than a single-use plastic one," said Cornell University professor Glen Dowell, who is an expert in the environmental responsibility of businesses. "And when we think about the footprint of the transportation of getting the containers back and forth, it's going to be quite a few times that these containers have to be reused before they're better in an environmental sense."

That's not the only challenge. Changing the container doesn't eliminate the waste created by what's inside them – like wet wipes.

"So the battle we're picking is around disposable packaging and so it's showing we can create a major solution," Szaky said. "We're gonna pick one battle at a time and try to solve that in a big, epic way."

Back in England, Emily Stevenson thinks Loop will catch on for the same reason Walkers crisps began recycling through TerraCycle last December.

"If the companies know that these next generations don't want plastic, they have to listen because else they won't have customers in the future," Stevenson said.

She said her generation is demanding change now, to create a cleaner earth for the future.