Aurora recycling plant repurposes waste items once thought to be unrecyclable

AURORA, Ill. (WLS) -- Chicagoland residents are not recycling as much as the rest of the country. While the national recycling rate is 30%, Chicagoland residents recycle roughly 20% of waste, according to national and local recycling data.

Exactly what people can recycle is expanding beyond the typical paper and aluminum products.

Recycling the nearly unrecyclable is not a futuristic idea. That's thanks to innovation happening right now in the western suburbs that could help Chicagoland reduce waste.

Plastic and aluminized chip bags, tens of thousands of contact blister packs, used bath products, cosmetics, childrens' toys and even cigarette butts are all packed into a 140,000 square foot facility in Aurora.

TerraCycle is working to recycle and reuse what was once thought of as unrecyclable. While there are companies focused on recycling single products, for example recycling just batteries or only cosmetic products, TerraCycle claims it is the only company working to recycle hundreds of waste streams.

Tom Szaky is the CEO of the recycling company, working to take what would normally be landfill waste and bring it back to the consumer ecosystem. The money to do it comes through brand underwriting, corporate and municipal partnerships and paid consumer programs

"TerraCycle, now across 20 countries, is focused on how do we eliminate the idea of waste," Szaky said.

TerraCycle gets about 800 to 1,000 of boxes delivered to its facility in Aurora every single day, and they are full of items that would normally end up in a landfill but can be recycled, like used coffee pods and so much more.

"Dirty diaper recycling or cigarette butt recycling. The cost of collecting this and transforming that into new materials way outweighs the value of those materials," Szaky said. "So the solution is we have to get folks to pay for it."

The need for a more circular, ideally zero, waste system is there.

In 2022, Chicago households only recycled 9.1% of the nearly 878,000 tons of waste that year, according to data from the City of Chicago. For suburban Cook County in 2022, households recycled just 18% of the over one million tons of waste.

In Aurora, TerraCycle's largest single hub takes in waste from all over the country to be weighed, scanned and sorted before being sent to facilities to turn the items into their most basic components, crushing, sanitizing, melting down and repurposing plastics and polymers, fibers, paper-based pulps, alloys and other metals.

Bharat Thazhathu is TerraCycle's senior director of North American operations.

"Chip wrappers, shopping bags, anything that we call mixed flexible plastic is our number one stream that we get here," Thazhathu said.

Szaky is calling on buyers to vote for the environment with their dollars.

"How do we help waste have a better solution than what you have today so at a minimum if you going to buy an object, let's make sure you can recycle it," Szaky said. "But then, let's also maybe rethink how the object is made and maybe even how you consume it so that the idea of garbage disappears."

There are completely free programs people can participate in by going to that are underwritten by agreements with brands, and the company just opened a drop-off hub in south suburban Cook County's South Holland.

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