Close this search box.

Subscription Recycling Programs: What to Know

Waste RecyclingRules Banner

In 2021, Sustainable Princeton adopted a new strategic plan to focus our efforts on actions that make the most impact to reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions and be more resilient to climate change. We believe that this is where our efforts are most needed. We are aligning our programs to reduce emissions from our built environment and transportation sector, protect the local ecosystem, and strengthen our resilience to climate change. However, we still partner with the Municipality to provide opportunities to divert materials from our landfill if we have confidence that the materials are reused, upcycled or recycled. We collect a few hard-to-recycle items at SHREDFEST and at our office such as Styrofoam, printer cartridges, batteries, and reusable bags. We have stopped collecting materials when the place or person no longer accepts the materials, the recycling venue starts charging to take the materials, or if we become less certain that the materials do, in fact, end up getting upcycled or recycled. 

Subscription Recycling Programs

We are often asked about subscription recycling programs that are offered by companies like Terracycle. Subscription-based recycling programs (free or at a cost) offer solutions for hard-to-recycle items that cannot be collected in curbside recycling. Economics typically drives what materials these programs can actually recycle. If the cost of collecting and processing something exceeds the value of the recovered materials, then the recycler has no financial incentive to recycle it. 

Unfortunately, reliable information is not yet available to show that Terracycle is delivering on its promise to recycle the items collected through its programs. We will continue to monitor for verification that the materials Terracycle collects are consistently and reliably recycled. Plastic waste is a serious environmental issue, and we sincerely want to see Terracycle’s mission of “reducing the idea of waste” succeed. 

Subscription recycling programs are a growing business, and hopefully, third-party-verification programs will evolve to provide consumer confidence that the materials collected are used as they are advertised.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

So, what is happening to help solve the recycling problem? Legislation is being considered in some states that would shift the disposal costs of these materials to the producers and away from consumers.  This transfer of costs is referred to as “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR). EPR policies require manufacturers be legally and financially responsible for their products/packaging throughout the entire lifecycle of a product, including disposal as well as environmental impacts. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), EPR policy is characterized by the following:

1. the shifting of responsibility (physically and/or economically; fully or partially) upstream toward the producer and away from municipalities; and

2. the provision of incentives to producers to take into account environmental considerations when designing their products.

The US has only recently started to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to EPR laws. On January 18th, 2022, Governor Murphy signed P.L. 2021, c. 391 [N.J.S.A. 13:1E-99.135-157], which banned polystyrene packing peanuts and established a recycled content requirement, starting in 2024, for certain plastic, glass, and paper packaging. Here is a summary of the law.

NJ lawmakers take up a bill to reduce packaging waste  

On January 18, 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed New Jersey’s recycled content bill into law. The law establishes recycled content requirements starting in 2024 for certain plastic, glass and paper packaging and bans polystyrene packing peanuts.

New Jersey lawmakers have also introduced a bill that would reduce the use of single-use plastic packaging by at least 25% by 2032. The bill (S-426), dubbed the Packaging Product Stewardship Act, would require producers of packaging materials to manage better what they sell and use more recycled content in their products.

The legislation would require producers of packaging to develop a stewardship plan that would help them manage, collect, transport, recycle, reuse, or dispose of all packaging products. Fees would be collected from them to fund their plans, which would have to be approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Better solutions to recycling

Recycling collection programs are not perfect, but they are important and we should adopt practices that reduce our waste stream overall.

Following the EPA’s waste hierarchy (see graph below), reuse is environmentally preferable to recycling because it extends the useful life of items and avoids the need for new products to be made. The actions in the Materials Management section of Princeton’s Climate Action Plan follow this waste reduction hierarchy. Reducing and reusing have a greater impact on reducing GHG emissions and should be prioritized over recycling.

The Waste Hierarchy

So, what else can you do right now? 

  1. Familiarize yourself with the Municipality of Princeton’s “Recycling in Princeton” webpage
  2. Download Recycle Coach
  3. Reduce your plastic purchases.  
  4. Share, lease, reuse, repurpose, repair, refurbish and recycle existing materials and products for as long as possible
  5. Commit to using items made of recycled materials
  6. Support local sustainable forward-thinking businesses
  7. Donate and purchase used goods
  8. Advocate for change at the national and state levels

Note: There may be differences in what is collected curbside for residents, in your apartment, at your workplace, and in public places, including the University grounds. 

Recycling FAQ

Q: What is Recycle Coach and why should I use it?

A: The Recycle Coach information system reduces confusion about local recycling program requirements and is outfitted for that specific town.  The mobile app enables residents to have this information right at their fingertips.  Users can access the town’s recycling, trash, and leaf-and-brush schedules, plus set alerts and reminders so you never miss collection days.  You can also look up how to recycle various items locally. The communication feature lets you instantly submit questions or issues to the municipality. Download the Recycle Coach app or use the online version. 

Q: What do the numbers in the triangles mean?

A: The numbers found within triangles on plastic items designate resin type. These numbers were created by the plastics industry to identify the type of plastic resin the product was made from – not the recyclability of the product. Chasing arrow triangular symbols are often placed on items to show that an item was either made from some amount of recycled material or can be recycled after use. The recycling symbol itself does not guarantee that a product or package is recyclable. The chasing arrow symbol is not regulated by any governing body since the symbol was never patented in 1970 when it was created. 

California became the first state to restrict the use of the widely known “chasing arrows” symbol. In 2021, CA State lawmakers passed a bill that criminalizes putting the symbol on any item that isn’t commonly recycled as determined by the state’s environmental regulator.

Q: Why can’t we recycle #1-7 Plastic?

A: Plastics that have #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE) are the most commonly recycled plastics. Plastics #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7 are generally more difficult to recycle and are not universally collected in local recycling programs. Economics typically drives what materials these programs can actually recycle. If the cost of collecting and processing something exceeds the value of the recovered materials, then the recycler has no financial incentive to recycle it. 

Q: What about other hard to recycle programs?

A: The company Preserve ended its Gimme #5 Program, which collected #5 plastics and issued a statement about its decision to close the program. You may have heard of other areas accepting #5 and other plastics; however, as far as we are aware, there is not a strong enough market at this time for this to be the case in Mercer County. If the economics were to support a product being recycled, it would likely be incorporated into curbside recycling.