Participatory Environmentalism

The environmental movement has long stressed the importance of personal responsibility. What we do as individuals might seem trivial when set against the huge complex systems that regulate the earth. But if enough individuals change their habits, it can make a difference. And so we do what we can: turn down our thermostats, install insulation, reduce our consumption of meat, bicycle to work. And we also separate our waste in order to participate in municipal recycling.

Recycling is a profoundly modern concept. In the pre-industrial era, objects were too valuable to simply throw away, so they were constantly being repaired or repurposed. As consumer culture began to develop, our economic growth became predicated on the planned obsolescence of the objects we bought. If our cars lasted 100 years, the industry would radically shrink in size.

Only with the limits imposed by the energy crisis and now the climate change crisis has recycling become obligatory in many parts of the world. The range of recyclables has also widened dramatically over the years beyond just paper, cans, and bottles. San Francisco, for instance, now requires the recycling of food scraps. Through its overall recycling and composting program, the city keeps 80 percent of its waste out of landfill – compared to a national average of 35 percent – and is aiming for 100 percent.

TerraCycle aims to expand the recycling range even further, and it relies even more on the spirit of voluntarism. “Our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste,” TerraCycle’s Daniel German told me in an interview last May in the company’s Budapest office. “We collect materials and garbage that are technically recyclable but no one thinks they’re recyclable. They just toss it into landfill or incinerate it.”

The first TerraCycle project in Hungary involved collecting chocolate wrappers. It required the participation of thousands of individuals. “Our first program, the chocolate program, more than 8,000 people participated: schools, offices, kindergartens,” German explained. “In many schools, the teachers use our program to teach the kids the importance of recycling. They can experience on their own: throw it in this bin, not that bin. It’s pretty simple.”

The participating institutions send the wrappers to TerraCycle. “We store the wrappers in a warehouse until we have a large amount,” German continued. “Our R & D department has figured out how we can recycle those wrappers with already existing technology. When we have enough wrappers, we pelletize them. And those pellets are a secondary raw material that’s cheaper than virgin plastic material. It can be used to make pet bowls, buckets, and so on. We recycle the material in the country where it is collected — we don’t want to ship the waste around.”

German filled me in on the overall recycling situation in Hungary as well as TerraCycle’s other projects and the company’s business model.

 

The Interview

 

Do you have any memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

My cousin moved to Berlin and lived there before 1990. I talk about Berlin as a special place because so much history happened there. But I don’t have any memories of the Wall falling.

 

When were you born?

 

In 1984. So, I guess I was hanging out somewhere in 1989.

 

Tell me about TerraCycle and what your role is.

 

TerraCycle is a very special company. Our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. We collect materials and garbage that are technically recyclable but no one thinks they’re recyclable. They just toss it into landfill or incinerate it. I encountered TerraCycle in the United States. I got a scholarship when I graduated here at Godollo, where I studied environmental engineering. I focused on recycling and waste management.

After I graduated, I decided that I had to go somewhere else to see what people do in other countries. The United States is maybe not the best place to learn about waste management. But there was this scholarship, so I decided to go. I lived in the UK for a year and in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, the waste management system is really advanced. But the boss I was working with told me I had to go over to the US to see how people are thinking over there.

My plan was to get an internship in San Francisco. I knew there are a lot of Green projects there. But I ended up in New Jersey. You can imagine that wasn’t my top choice. But it was close to New York and Philly.

 

Where in New Jersey?

 

Trenton.

 

Wow, Trenton.

 

Yeah. TerraCycle accepted me at the R & D department. We were trying to figure out what to do with cigarette butts, how to recycle them. My first day at the office, the vice president of global R & D welcomed me and introduced me to the CEO. And I was really surprised because the CEO is a Hungarian guy. His parents emigrated to Canada. He studied at Princeton, but he quit after the second year to start the company. Now it’s in 26 countries around the world. It was funny to go overseas and talk to the CEO in Hungarian.

In Hungary we started our first program on Earth Day on April 22. We started to collect chocolate wrappers.

 

The tin foil?

 

It’s plastic-based flexible packaging. Two months ago, we launched our second program: salted snack packages like chip wrappers. It looks like we’ll launch our cigarette butt program tomorrow. People in restaurants, bars, and offices can sign up, collect cigarette butts, and sent them to us to be recycled.

 

This requires people to participate. It’s not you going around the streets and collecting the butts.

 

That’s right. There are many groups thinking about how to solve this issue because the cigarette regulations recently changed. From last April you cannot smoke in bars, only in front of the bars. So, this kind of waste is concentrated in different spots. If there is no service provided for collecting and recycling this waste, people will just toss their butts on the street, which is not a good option.

 

What is the recycling situation in Hungary? Is there separation of household waste?

 

They will likely change the regulations and set up separation at the household. But until now, we have waste islands. In every district there are a couple spots where you can bring metal or cardboard and leave it there.

 

Is there a large degree of participation in the island waste program?

 

That’s the problem. It’s not always close to your location. You have to make an effort to carry waste to those spots. Those people who want to do something, they do it — as I do. But if it could be more convenient, more people would participate. People are open to recycling and living a more sustainable life. But if there’s no service, it’s not easy for them.

 

Are there waste incinerators here in Hungary, or does it all go into landfill?

 

We have one or two incinerators. But most of the waste goes into landfill.

 

Is there a problem with space for landfill? Have they filled up?

 

I don’t know exactly how many landfills we have. But there is an EU directive to put less waste into landfills. It’s getting more and more expensive because of the space issue. Also, the waste has value.

 

In San Francisco, they have a program for food scraps and organic waste. It’s required. Every household has to put out a pail of food scraps. It has reduced overall amount of waste dramatically. Do you think people here would be open to recycling of organic waste?

 

I can only talk about myself, but where I’m living I would definitely be open to it, and I know young people who would do the same. My mom lives in the countryside where it’s not an issue because we do our own composting. But if you’re in the city, you don’t have a choice. What’s missing is the service.

 

Is there a difference in perspective between young and old, with young being more open to recycling?

 

No, I don’t think so. The only difference is that young people grew up hearing about recycling.

 

As a business model, how does TerraCycle work?

 

It’s called sponsored waste. Our programs are sponsored by big brands. For example, the chocolate brigade is sponsored by Milka, which is a Kraft (Mondelez) brand. Milka sponsored us to set up the program, run the program, and collect as many wrappers as possible (whether they’re Milka or a competitor, it doesn’t matter). They sponsor us, and we run the program.

 

The program only lasts for a particular period of time?

 

Our goal is not to close a program. But the promotion lasts a certain period. In recycling, the most important thing is to get people used to it. That’s maybe why there’s a difference between old and young. If you grow up in a neighborhood where everyone is recycling, it will be normal for you. If you grow up somewhere else, you think it’s a big effort. That’s why we don’t recommend closing any program. Our first program, the chocolate program, more than 8,000 people participated: schools, offices, kindergartens. In many schools, the teachers use our program to teach the kids the importance of recycling. They can experience on their own: throw it in this bin, not that bin. It’s pretty simple.

 

What do you do with the wrappers?

 

Once you sign up for the program, you can put out any kind of box. Once it’s filled with chocolate wrappers, you download a free shipping label from our website and bring the box to the post office. It’s free for consumers. The box comes to our warehouse, we check it in, and we count the number of wrappers. We put two forints for each wrapper they sent to us into the collector’s account. They cannot use the money for their own, but they can donate it to a nonprofit organization or school here in Hungary.

 

You get the wrappers and then what?

 

We store the wrappers in a warehouse until we have a large amount. Our R & D department has figured out how we can recycle those wrappers with already existing technology. When we have enough wrappers, we pelletize them. And those pellets are a secondary raw material that’s cheaper than virgin plastic material. It can be used to make pet bowls, buckets, and so on. We recycle the material in the country where it is collected — we don’t want to ship the waste around. I’ve already contacted recycling companies. They have the machinery. They just don’t have the knowhow.

 

Did you already turn it into pellets?

 

Not yet. In the EU it’s a bit different. It’s much smaller than the United States. For example, the potato chip consumption here is a lot less than the United States. You can’t go to a factory to pelletize unless you have tons of material.

 

So you have to wait. And you have a warehouse where the material is piling up.

 

Yes, we have a warehouse in the 15th district.

 

The Milka company — does it only support the campaign for a particular period of time?

 

We make a contract with them and agree on how long they want to launch. When we get to that point, we negotiate a renewal.

 

What can you do about cigarette butts?

 

The tobacco and the ash and the paper go into special tobacco composting. The filter is a kind of polymer — we can sterilize it, shred it, and then pelletize it.

 

So you will have lots of pellets of different kinds. On one end, you’re TerraCyle and on the other end, you’re Pellet, Inc.

 

Yes. We collect the raw material and sell the new material.

 

What does tomorrow’s launch consist of?

 

We will start to promote the program at local festivals. If you want to enjoy yourself at a festival, it’s better without cigarette butts on the ground.

 

Is there a music festival taking place tomorrow?

 

A small music festival at a university.

 

How long as TerraCycle been in operation, internationally and here in Hungary?

 

In 2003 they started in the United States with fertilizer made out of worm poop. Tom, our CEO, developed a technology to turn worm poop into fertilizer.

 

Where do you get worm poop?

 

They set up a system for that. They collected organic waste. The worms eat the organic waste, then poop it. This worm poop is really good for plants. You can just put it on leaves and they will get greener and healthier. That was the first program. They sold all the worm poop in recycled soda bottles. They set up a brigade so that people could send them empty soda bottles. They met with the brand and asked them to pay for the shipping because they were reusing the bottles.

In Hungary we set up the system in 2012, on April 22. It happened right after I returned from the United States.

 

How many employees do you have?

 

I am the person for the Hungarian business. We have six programmers that support all the work globally.

 

So you’re doing all this work by yourself! Wow. You have 8,000 people collecting wrappers. You have the warehouse. You have to deal with the pelletizing. That’s a lot!

 

At the moment, yes. I’m looking forward to hiring people.

 

Is TerraCycle a non-profit?

 

It’s for profit. Our revenue is increasing every year, but our profit is stable. As soon as we have profit we use it to hire more people. The goal is stay in the black, not to make a huge profit.

 

Is there a rule in the organization about reinvestment of profit? Or is it a decision by each country?

 

No, it comes from the United States, from the CEO.

 

You said that you are part of this business incubator here in this building.

 

We just rented a room here. There are a number of small companies here.

 

Is there a lot of turnover? How old is this incubator?

 

I don’t know. I never heard about this place before I moved in.

 

Do you like working here?

 

It’s a nice location. You can meet with young interesting people. We hang out in the kitchen and talk about what we’re doing. You never know who you’re going to meet and how they might be helpful.

 

There might be a business here that needs pellets.

 

Pelletizing and creating plastic goods is not exactly popular among the people here.

 

What other businesses are here?

 

IT, media. There is a packaging company in the back. They are developing new packaging for milk, When the milk expires, the box changes color to blue, so you don’t have to check the date because you see immediately on the box. They came up with this idea and are trying to sell it to companies.

 

When did you decide you wanted to do environmental work?

 

I never decided. When I finished gymnasium, I was thinking about where to go to university. I just knew I wanted to go to university. But I was trying to choose. The only thing I really liked was nature. So I decided to go into environmental engineering. I did two years. Then I went to England for my gap year for work and travel. I came back for another year and went to the Netherlands to study. I graduated there as a rural development engineer. Rural and nature are quite close. I got an internship in the Netherlands where we were recycling plastic in rural areas to create jobs and so on. Then I graduated here and it was obvious from that point that I wanted to do something in waste management. It’s a big issue here.

 

How would you compare the public awareness of environmental issues in Hungary to the other places you’ve been – United States, UK, Netherlands?

 

I’d put Hungary in the middle. I haven’t been in really poor countries so I can’t compare to those. TerraCycle is operating in 26 different countries including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil. In a place like Argentina, for example, environmental protection is less developed. So, I’d put Hungary in the middle.

 

How much are you aware of the environmental movement here in Hungary going back to the 1980s with the Nagymaros dam protests?

 

I remember that because my family lives close to where the dam was built. I remember people protesting. I remember when they started to build the dam. But I don’t remember anything else.

 

What about your parents? Would you say that they are Green? Half-Green?

 

My mom is definitely Green. She is always trying to do things organic. In the countryside, if you’re not in a really poor area, people really respect nature and try to protect it. But if you go close to Miskolc, people are collecting cables and just burning the plastic off to get the metal. But I would probably do the same if I were in such a poor situation. Those people probably don’t have any other choice.

 

The people you hang out with in Hungary, how Green are they? Do they think about carbon footprints or air quality or local sourcing for food?

 

Definitely my friends are. During my university years, I was living on the Pest side, where it’s busier, more crowded, and the air is much dustier. All my friends and me too, we moved to Buda.

 

You’re up in the hills?

 

You know Moszkva Ter? Right behind that. Almost all of my friends moved to Buda. It wasn’t planned. But they appreciate a quieter place.

 

When I was here in 1990, the air quality was so bad in Pest that they established camps up in the Buda hills to bring children who were having problems breathing. I imagine things have gotten better. But Buda is still more desirable.

 

It’s not because there are fewer cars. Rather, the wind is blowing more often on the Buda side.

 

What do you think of the government’s environmental policy?

 

Now that waste management has become a governmental business, it could work well. But everything depends on whether those positions go to the right people and not just someone’s friend. There are some really educated people who can make a difference, but they should be given the opportunity.

 

I heard that the government eliminated the environmental ministry and put it under agriculture. Do you think that’s a good idea?

 

It doesn’t matter. They are just trying to eliminate bureaucracy. But I don’t know.

 

I’ve been told that a lot of people your age are leaving Hungary.

 

Yes, many are leaving. But many return. This is a big difference — if someone is leaving Hungary for good or just leaving to get experience. Before the regime changed here in 1989, people couldn’t travel. And it’s really important for young people to travel.

 

The young people I’ve talked to have been pretty about cynical about politics and the prospects for change here in Hungary. What’s your attitude?

 

I don’t know what to say — that’s a tough question. It’s a big issue now. One part of the country is saying that what’s happening here is bad. The other part is saying it’s better. I don’t want to say that the economic results are good or bad because I’m not an economic specialist. Here people like to say what is good and what is bad even though they don’t have any knowledge.

Last week I was talking about this with one of my friends who was fed up with just about everything. He was acting like he knows everything, and I got really tired of it. People just talk too much about politics. There are so many other things to talk about. If you open an online news portal, you can read 100 articles about what a minister said. Two weeks ago, there was an article about a politician having a really expensive bag. Who cares? I don’t care. The media don’t really give news about more important things. People like to read this stupid news. And people really like complaining here in Hungary.

 

When I was here in 1990, Fidesz was a party for young people. Do you think that might happen again, young people saying they want a party just for themselves?

 

Politics Can Be Different (LMP) might be something like that. I don’t know what to think about these parties — Fidesz, LMP. I can’t decide which is better. I thought the previous government was pretty much the same. But nothing happened. Now something is happening, but people are afraid that it might not be good. But who knows what’s good and what’s bad.

 

Since you were in university, have you changed your worldview in any way?

 

No. I just learned that complaining never helps. It doesn’t bring you forward. The important thing is just to open your eyes and listen than act. This is what people should be doing here, whether they agree or not agree. Not just talking. It really annoys me when someone says something is bad or good and they don’t do anything. They just talk.

 

They’re just passive.

 

Yes. And those that are active, if they hear something, they immediately believe it’s true. But it all depends on what news portal they listen to. When I end up talking about politics with this one friend and I say I don’t mind what is happening here — though, of course, I disagree with many things – we get into an argument. I get angry when I read that people in Hungary are afraid because the leader is a dictator. I’ve never had any problem. I haven’t been stopped by the police for 10 years or more. I don’t know who is scared. I don’t believe that’s true.

 

Do you think the situation for Roma has changed?

 

It hasn’t changed.  The only solution for the Roma issue is to educate them, and it will take at least one generation. In the last 12 years, no one spent a forint on educating the Roma. It’s understandable. The country is not rich. Obviously if you’re the government and you spend money on educating Roma, you will lose votes — because there are other people who are poor.

I come from a small village. We have Roma as well. My village is Szendehely. It’s a Swabian village. When I grew up, everyone was working and the Roma got used to working. Some had their own companies, cutting grass and so on. It was a long period, and they got used to it. If you give them government subsidies, they won’t do anything — that’s my opinion.

 

The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back at everything that has changed in Hungary from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

4.

 

Same scale, same time period: your own personal life?

 

8.

 

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next 2 or 3 years, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

7.5. It’s important to be optimistic.

 

Budapest, May 6, 2013

 


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