Taco Bell wants you to collect your used sauce packets to help reduce waste

Taco bell hot sauce
You should at least try one. Lindsay DeMunno/INSIDER
  • Taco Bell announced a way to recycle old hot sauce packets.
  • The company is partnering with TerraCycle to recycle them.
  • A plastic advocacy group alleged TerraCycle doesn’t recycle everything, which the company refuted.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Don’t toss out that empty Taco Bell hot sauce packet just yet. That small plastic pouch might have more to give.

Taco Bell on Thursday announced a partnership for its sauce packets with TerraCycle, a recycling business focused on taking traditionally non-recyclable materials and turning them into new products like furniture, jewelry, and bags. Some items are simply re-sewn into totes whereas some are melted and re-shaped into goods.

The massive taco chain said 8.2 billion sauce packets are thrown out each year, leading the company to commission TerraCycle in April to find a use for all that waste. After nearly six months of planning, the two groups have implemented a simple system for American taco lovers:

  1. Make an account on TerraCycle’s website
  2. Collect used packets in a box (eat the sauce in them first)
  3. Print a free shipping label
  4. Send the box back to TerraCycle

Recycling with TerraCycle appears easy but comes with a catch

TerraCycle’s process for sending in Taco Bell sauces is free for consumers to use, but recycling virtually anything else from the company requires purchasing a “Zero Waste Box,” pouch, or pallet that can cost from $US42 ($AU57) to $US1,600 ($AU2,172).

According to Resource Recycling, the Zero Waste Box was the “second-biggest money maker” for the company in 2020 with $US7.5 ($AU10) million in net sales.

Taco Bell is not the first major corporation to work with TerraCycle: several shampoo companies, makeup distributors, and other food suppliers have partnered with the group to create similar projects.

Recycling advocates told Vox in August that they’ve tried to take part in TerraCycle’s advertised partnerships in the past to no avail.

Leticia Socal, a sustainability blogger, told Vox that there’s a tremendous backlog for the company’s partnered promotions.

“There is this huge waitlist,” Socal said. “For some of them, I have been waiting for more than one year.”

Recycling advocates have also alleged that TerraCycle has repeatedly stretched the truth on what it can and does recycle in its facilities.

The Last Beach Cleanup, a plastic pollution awareness organization, sued TerraCycle in March, alleging that “most of the Products are not actually recycled.” The group said this leads consumers to believe they’re helping the environment when the items are actually being brought to a landfill or incinerator.

“Defendants are therefore reaping the rewards of portraying themselves as environmentally friendly by marketing the Products as recyclable while offering no corresponding benefit to the environment or to consumers concerned about sustainability,” the lawsuit states.

Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s CEO, refuted the substance of the lawsuit and told Resource Recycling that everything the company receives is ultimately recycled.

“It’s our entire reputation, all of our clients who are the biggest companies in the world, they are contracting with us to carry out a promise,” Szaky said. “We legally guarantee, in all of our contracts, recycling.”