Calories aside, there’s one less thing to feel guilty about when you tear into those bright, shiny snack bags in the pantry: your trash.

TerraCycle, an international company that collects difficult-to-recycle packaging is turning our snack bags into eye-catching purses and tote bags that are then sold to the public. TerraCycle – www.terracycle.com – repurposes trash into useful stuff, from park benches and toys to flower pots and furniture. The process is called upcycling, not to be confused with downcycling or recycling.

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Here’s a primer to explain the differences:
Recycling turns something into another product of equal value. Example: Glass. Since glass does not degrade when it is processed, it can easily be recycled into new glass products.

Downcycling (or downstream recycling) turns something into a product of lesser value. Example: Paper. Because it loses quality with each process, most recycled paper becomes… toilet paper.

Upcycling takes an item of lesser value and turns it into something that has a higher value. Example: snack wrappers becoming tote bags and purses.

Snack-Wrappers

Since January, offices in Princeton, San Francisco, and Washington, DC have collected 17,388 snack bags in a pilot program aimed at diverting waste from landfills. Over the course of a year, these four buildings will gather about 69,600 bags. Divided by the 1,474 employees in those offices, that’s 47 bags per person, reports Bloomberg’s Sustainability manager Michael Barry. If you multiply that by approximately 15,000 employees worldwide, that raises the stakes to a possible 705,000 snack bags that end up in the waste stream every year.

That’s a lot of wrappers, folks. “Bloomberg has committed to divert 90% of our waste from landfills,” reports Barry. “To achieve this goal we need to recycle and compost as much as possible and seek creative solutions”.

The other upshot is that the upcycling program encourages volunteerism by having each office form a team (BGREEN Squad) to collect, store, and ship the wrappers to a TerraCycle plant. The BGREEN Squad can either earn points redeemable for a variety of charitable gifts, or they can receive $0.01 per bag to donate to the nonprofit organization or school of their choice.

This made Princeton’s BGREEN Squad leader and vendor liaison Helen Ritchie very happy. Her team not only gets the satisfaction of collecting and shipping the bags, but also of tallying their loot – now totaling about $350 in just under a year. Their chosen charity is Clean Ocean Action (COA), a nonprofit whose goal is to improve the degraded marine water quality on the New Jersey and New York coasts.

Upcycling

“Our relationship is symbiotic in that COA now supports Bloomberg during our Earth Day fair and our employees engage in hands-on volunteer work like beach clean-ups with them,” Ritchie reports. “It’s such a great program and we’re proud of our involvement.”

Meanwhile, the K Street office in Washington just launched an upcycling program under BGREEN Squad Leader Cheryl Wilson, who works in Bloomberg New Energy Finance. She reports that the building’s eight bins were full within the first month. That was even before hosting a recent Lunch and Learn with a TerraCycle representative to formally introduce the program to employees.

“This is excellent progress,” she says, adding that employees are readily accepting of the new system. The team plans to donate their received funds to local conservation groups that work to improve waterways and parks.

The San Francisco office has also embraced upcycling as of January 2014, with New York City starting May 5 and Arlington, and London soon to follow.

“People here are happy that Bloomberg is behind this effort in giving us a chance to make upcycling a choice at work,” says BGREEN Squad Leader Mary Hannawacker, who works as a team leader for Analytics in San Francisco. “Our participation also increases our consciousness outside of work.”
Barry calls it a win-win.

”We couldn’t be more pleased with the results,” he says. “Now everyone can have their snacks and feel a little less guilty.”

Contributed by On Bloomberg, Bloomberg LP’s internal newswire.