Tom Szaky is the star of the plastic scene. With his company “TerraCycle” he claims to be able to recycle plastic packaging that actually cannot be recycled. Instead, an ARD film team found the packaging in Bulgaria, where it was to be burned in a cement plant.
At six in the morning on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia: the forklift driver, the security service and the dubious garbage collector from Italy seem to be still asleep. Tens of thousands of bags of crisps, cat food and bread bags are stored in the fields of view of the surveillance cameras. Neatly pressed into about thirty man-high bales, labeled with the names of the food giants: Mars, Pepsico, Nestlé. The name of the responsible disposal company is also on the bales: “TerraCycle”.
Eliminate the idea of waste. Recycle everything. Tamas Szaky seems to be able to make the impossible possible. Though he looks a bit like he’s sleeping under the bridge, Szaky gives Ted Talks and sits on stages with food industry CEOs at the World Economic Forum. Szaky, known to everyone as Tom, is the founder and CEO of Terracycle. East Coast trash start-up claims to recycle plastic packaging that isn’t actually recyclable. They supposedly get a second life with TerraCycle, for example as elements for playgrounds or table tennis tables.
The big corporations in the food industry seem to like working with Szaky and his nerds from New Jersey. Tom is undoubtedly one of the poster boys of the plastics industry, a star with shaggy hair and an eight-day beard. Terracycle has also been active in Germany for over a decade, has already worked with one of the largest companies in the Green Dot, and collects pens and board games mainly from the mothers of kindergarten children.
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A team of reporters producing the documentary “The Recycling Lie” on behalf of ARD has now revealed that TerraCycle’s UK waste was to be incinerated at Bulgarian cement plants instead of being recycled. The reporters spent more than a year researching corporate promises, clandestine incinerators and waste exports. The film will be broadcast on ARD on June 20th and shows how plastic waste from EU citizens is emerging on the Bosphorus and the Balkans.
For the film, the authors posed as garbage dealers and offered fictional plastic waste for export. A lead leads to a suspected criminal Italian in Bulgaria, who tells how he bribes authorities and customs to import plastic waste for incineration. Later he shows his depot, where those 30 bales of plastic are: neatly washed packaging, sorted by brand. Nobody in the industry deals in bales like this – except Tom Szaky, the poster boy of the plastic scene. The dubious Italian says he sends the bales to the cement works to be burned because they can’t be recycled. He gets money for that.
When Tom Szaky later sees the pictures from Bulgaria, he first turns pale and then angry. He cannot comment on any photos, he says in an interview for the film. And immediately wants the camera to turn off. After the interview, TerraCycle hires a media firm. There is talk of “defamation”, of disparagement. Tom’s lawyers could not rule out legal consequences.
In need of an explanation, TerraCycle comes up with a questionable story: a forklift driver from a disposal partner made a mistake. The trainee accidentally loaded the bales onto a truck along with other plastic waste that was supposed to go to the Italian’s yard. Nevertheless, the bales should have been recycled there and not delivered to the cement works.
Tom says the rubbish was taken back to the UK and eventually recycled there. TerraCycle displays bills of lading, certificates, and videos from its middlemen and recyclers. A mistake by Tom and his team.
The TerraCycle partner who sent the waste to Bulgaria has already been suspended under British waste legislation. The company lost its license to recycle or export plastic. Even more: According to research by the film team, the British environmental authority investigated the boss of the company at the time of the Bulgarian export because of illegal exports of plastic waste to Indonesia – the boss of the company later pleaded guilty.
Despite this, TerraCycle tried for months to prevent the film from being broadcast in several countries and to this day maintains its innocence. After all, they worked together with another company owned by this manager, which is registered at the same address – the same depot.
Chemical engineer Jan Dell from California also filed a lawsuit in the USA two years ago against Posterboy and his TerraCycle. Jan Dell was once a sustainability consultant for oil companies and criticizes the plastics industry for its sustainability promises in the ARD documentary. TerraCycle in particular is a thorn in her side: Because the TerraCycle logo is denounced on many plastic packaging, although the recycling of each individual packaging is not guaranteed, according to Dell.
TerraCycle’s individual take-back programs are limited. The company only takes back a fraction of the plastic packaging that has its logo on it. This is misleading consumers, says Jan Dell. So illegal. A court agreed with her last winter and TerraCycle had to adjust its labels in the US.
Environmentalists and some industry insiders have had doubts about TerraCycle’s business model for some time. Actually, Tom Szaky’s company is just a marketing agency that has very little to do with real recycling. The system: collect money from corporations, collect a few packages from volunteers and have them processed by subcontractors.
The documentary “The Recycling Lie” shows that TerraCycle is not an isolated case. Consumers are therefore systematically deceived by corporations with recycling promises.
The recycling lie – Monday, June 20th at 10:50 p.m. on ARD or now in the ARD media library