Want to recycle more? Choose products that make it easy

Take-back recycling programs help give new life to products and packaging you can’t put out on the curb.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — November 10, 2022

Whether it’s junk mail, plastic packing material, or old electronics, the average American creates nearly five pounds of trash a day — and that number continues to rise. And while Americans are recycling more than ever, it’s up to companies to do more to replace plastics and other nonbiodegradable materials with more sustainable choices.

But community recycling programs typically accept a limited range of items, which means even the most committed recycler may be throwing recyclable materials in the trash simply because they don’t know where to turn. Manufacturers of consumer goods — from shoemakers to cosmetics companies — are  aiming to bring more circularity into the life cycles of their products and packaging (and sometimes those from other brands, too) with their own recycling programs. While these programs help businesses reach their sustainability goals, build customer loyalty, and keep more raw materials in use and out of the landfill; they are still just a small step toward reaching the EPA’s goal of increasing the US recycling rate to 50% by 2030.


WATCH: Eco-influencer and environmental advocate @alisonsadventures recycles HP Original ink and toner cartridges before hitting the waves in her home state of Hawaii


“Consumers care more and more, and we’re seeing more companies leaning in,” says Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, which helps companies develop recycle and reuse programs, processing millions of pounds of hard-to-recycle materials every month. “Everything can be recycled, converted into another life, back into itself, or something different.”

Across a range of industries, companies are helping consumers recycle everything from jeans to ink cartridges to contact lenses with easy-to-access take-back programs, and often, incentives to use them. Here are a few to look out for.

Keeping electronics out of landfills

Less than a quarter of all electronic waste in the US is recycled, according to a United Nations estimate. Technology that’s not recycled ends up in landfills or gets incinerated, creating the potential for dangerous toxins like mercury and beryllium to leach into soil and waterways. Many people throw old devices in the trash or stash them in a drawer, but there are alternatives.

Illustration by Masha Foyart

Best Buy accepts personal electronics and household items at its stores for free recycling. People can recycle up to three items per household per day, including headphones, alarm clocks, desktop computers, refrigerators, and more — and not just products bought at Best Buy.

An HP Instant Ink subscription helps consumers save money on ink supplies and recycle responsibly, with pre-paid mail-in bags to send cartridges back for recycling and drop-off sites at retailers including Staples, Best Buy, Office Depot/OfficeMax and Walmart. More than 962 million ink and toner cartridges have been recycled by customers through the global HP Planet Partners closed loop cartridge recycling program. HP also publishes a list of global recycling vendors that comprise 95% of HP’s volume of used electric and electronics equipment processed through Planet Partners.

Amazon will take old electronics and devices sold on their site and from other retailers. Customers recycling products like Bluetooth speakers and home security devices can get gift cards in return if products are in good condition for refurbishing and reselling.

Illustration by Masha Foyart

Making food packaging more sustainable

Most food packaging is designed to be used once and discarded. Containers and packaging make up 23% of the material in landfills and a majority of the litter polluting beaches and waterways. UK-based Walkers Crisps accepts any brand of potato crisp or chip packaging for recycling at over 1,800 locations, recycling the material for use in plant pots, playgrounds, and park benches. Babybel pays for customers to send back the plastic, paper, metal and wax components of its cheeses for use in new products.

Nespresso coffee orders come with a handy bag customers can fill with used coffee pods and drop off at a Nespresso location or send back by mail for recycling into new pods. Dunkin’ Donuts has its own Coffee Bag Recycling Program, where customers mail in their used Dunkin’ flexible coffee bags. Bags are cleaned, melted into hard plastic, and made into new recycled products like park benches.

Grocer Kroger’s recycling program encourages customers to mail in flexible plastic packaging from its in-house brands, like Private Selection and Simple Truth. Customers earn points for each box of recyclables they redeem in the form of donations to schools or charitable organizations.

Families handing out Honest Kids aluminum, paper, and plastic drink pouches at kids’ birthday parties can mail those back to the company, too, Honest breaks them down and transforms them for use in garden beds and playgrounds.

Greening the fashion industry

The recycling rate in the US for clothes and shoes hovers around 13%, and plenty of retailers are trying to nudge that number higher.

Madewell accepts jeans from any brand and turns them into housing insulation for communities in need — consumers who bring in their jeans get $20 off their purchase of a new pair. Zappos also has a denim recycling program through its Blue Jeans Go Green program, which accepts any kind of denim for reuse in building insulation, pet beds, and thermal insulation for food and pharmaceutical packaging. Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia takes back used clothes and gear for repurposing or recycling at stores or by mail, while Merrell’s ReTread program accepts used hiking boots for “a second shot at adventure” via resale or recycling, plus $20 off your next purchase.

Direct-to-consumer brand Rothy’s accepts well-worn Rothy’s shoes to be disassembled and recycled, and offers a discount code to use on a future purchase.

For almost a decade, fashion giant H&M’s Garment Collecting program has made it easy for consumers to bring unwanted clothes, no matter their brand or condition, to an H&M store, where they’re marked as secondhand clothing, turned into other products, or recycled to make items like insulation materials. For baby and kids’ clothes that are too worn to donate, try Carter’s, which accepts all brands of kids’ clothing for reuse as home insulation and furniture stuffing.

Recycling health and beauty products

Some cosmetics and wellness products might seem unrecyclable because of their unique packaging or small parts. But specialized programs by brands themselves or through third-party recyclers capture even the most obscure items.

“Everything can be recycled, converted into another life, back into itself, or something different.”

—Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle

Bausch + Lomb accepts its used contact lenses, bottle tops, lens cases, and packaging at more than 7,000 eye care practices across the US, and some of the material is recycled to create benches, tables, and ramps for training guide dogs.

Through the Back to MAC program, MAC cosmetics consumers can return six empty cosmetics containers (at MAC counters or by mail) for recycling and receive a free lipstick as a thank-you gift.

With Lush’s Bring It Back return program, customers return clean Lush skincare and cosmetics pots over and receive $1 off their next purchase. Five empty pots earns a free face mask.

To accomplish its goal of recycling 100 tons of beauty packaging by 2025, Nordstrom accepts haircare, skincare, and makeup containers — including samples — in its BEAUTYCYCLE collection bins in Nordstrom stores. Raw materials are separated and reused in products such as watering cans and picnic tables.

Repurposing worn out furniture

According to EPA data, furniture and furnishings account for more than 12 million tons of waste annually, and only 40,000 tons of that waste gets recycled. Fortunately, some furniture retailers have set up their own recycling programs to resell or recycle all those old sofas, tables, and chairs.

Through IKEA’s Buyback and Resell program, customers can sell clean, assembled, and functional IKEA furniture like dressers, bookshelves, and small tables back to the company for resale at its “circular hubs” in stores and online. Sabai’s Revive program pays customers up to 20% of the resale price of their used sofa and even arranges to pick it up for you.

Herman Miller's rePurpose program finds a new home for unwanted office furniture and any other office fixtures or supplies you may no longer need, from copy machines to paperclips, by donating them to nonprofits around the world. 

TerraCycle’s Szaky notes that buying products from companies that offer take-back recycling programs like these not only keeps plastic and other materials out of landfills, it also encourages more companies to follow suit. This helps grow the circular economy, a critical tool in tackling climate change.

“When you see companies taking the right steps, applaud it and ask for more,” he says.


How to recycle almost any household device, gadget, or appliance.