TerraCycle’s Role Within the Circular Economy: an Interview with Julien Tremblin

Julien Tremblin, General Manager at TerraCycle Europe.

Julien Tremblin, General Manager at TerraCycle Europe.

Julien Tremblin took the role of General Julien Tremblin took the role of General Manager at TerraCycle Europe in July 2021, after being in the company since 2015. With the world of sustainable business accelerating, we thought it was the ideal time to sit down with him and find out how his first quarter as General Manager went, what TerraCycle’s position is within the circular economy and what his ambitions are for the future.

What excites you the most about your new role?

For starters I get to work with some of the smartest and most motivated people, who are truly driven to make a difference – there’s a wealth of talent and innovation here at TerraCycle. What’s more, sustainability is higher on the agenda than ever before, and we’re still only very much scratching the surface of what can be achieved. This makes me very excited for the future of not only my role but for the company and what we can achieve with our partners.

What are your mid and long-term visions?

I want TerraCycle to go after even larger solutions to tackle key challenges like the need for recycling solutions in new places, such as front of store locations. We already have considerable experience running these types of schemes (e.g. medicine packets and contact lenses) but much larger projects, with potentially multiple waste streams, will be brought to life in the coming years, and TerraCycle will play a key role in their development. 

As we continue to evolve, we are proving that we’re a company that can adapt to pretty much any type of logistics. We’re also employing more people within our operations team who can look after larger solutions, like freight models, so that we can do bigger quantities when the need arises.

There are also some initiatives that I’m proud to say we’ve recently joined, such as The Diverse Sustainability Initiative, which helps companies in the sustainability sector to be as diverse as possible as an employer. By doing this, we want to continue to build a strong business through an inclusive team, recognising the full potential of the communities in which we operate as a provider of employment. 

Another ambition is to move towards our own net-zero commitment. At the moment we’re creating subgroups that are going to be led by one or two team leads, and then with associates around the world, to build a net-zero supply chain. We’re also in the process of joining the Exponential Roadmap Initiative which supports and holds accountable companies who are making net-zero commitments.

How would you summarise this past quarter in three words?

Challenging, and perhaps ‘legislative’… I know that sounds slightly odd, but there’s a lot of legislative work going on at the moment within the waste management sector which is impacting what we do now, and how we will address the future.

There are also a lot of changes happening with EPR (Extended producer Responsibility) and the Plastic Packaging Tax in the UK while in France, there’s a lot to unpack from the AGEC laws.

Another word to describe this quarter is ‘transient’ because there’s just so much going on!

What has been your biggest challenge so far as General Manager?

The biggest challenge, as it has been for many other businesses, is to find the balance between moving from working from home and transitioning into ‘the new normal’ of life after Covid.

But this challenge comes with its own opportunity to reinvigorate collaboration. Many of our associates have had great ideas about the business but haven’t had the chance to approach me or talk to their colleagues within different departments here, so it’s going to be fun to have that happen more.

What’s one key achievement you’re most proud of?

I am really proud we’ve managed to give The Medicine Packet Recycling Programme a sizable solution for a waste stream that was not being recycled at all before. This has become one of our most successful programmes in the space of a few weeks with lots of opportunities to expand further.

Empty medicine blister packets sorted for recycling at our Material Recovery Facility.
Empty medicine blister packets sorted for recycling at our Material Recovery Facility.

How do you personally remain resilient?

Two things help – the first one is the people I’m surrounded with at TerraCycle. Going back to what I said earlier, they are very smart and motivated and being able to trust those you work with is incredibly important – you are only as good as the team you have around you!

Secondly, I’ve had to adapt to make quicker decisions. As General Manager, most days there will be something I hadn’t planned for landing on my plate, and I’ve got to handle it, whether it’s urgent business, an HR issue, or global alignment on key topics.

There used to be a time when I was allowed to weigh the pros and cons, but now it’s harder because often things have to be decided quickly. So, I just have to come to a decision knowing that there’s a certain level of risk.

On a more personal note, I’m lucky to live somewhere where I can literally step out of my home and take a countryside walk for 30 minutes. That’s something that keeps me sane when things get a bit hectic.

TerraCycle Europe staff at the office, October 2019, London.
TerraCycle Europe staff at the office, October 2019, London.

Why do you think the pandemic has shone a light on climate change?

I think everybody realised that it’s sometimes nice to take a breather. During the first and second lockdown, there was such a reduction in activity, highlighting that it’s possible to reduce our consumption and impact on the environment.

Another factor is the amount of time that people have spent in their homes, making them more in tune with their immediate environment. Suddenly, people became aware of how much rubbish they generate if they stay an entire week at home.

Everybody has also taken more pride in where they live, and as a result, have taken care of how it looks – there was an upswing of people who took a liking to the environment at large. Where I live, many people are now casually doing litter runs, jogging and picking up rubbish along the way.  

With regards to the topics covered at COP26, what is TerraCycle’s role in creating a climate-resilient economy?

These summits are extremely important, if only just to highlight the issues we face – especially with regards to waste generation and end of life. Although this topic is often underrepresented at COP, waste is today a major source of emissions.

For all of us to shift towards a circular economy – which is the act of eliminating the idea, concept and creation of waste – we’ve got to attack from all angles: refuse, reduce, re-use and recycle.

TerraCycle is taking action to tackle the different angles to help both our communities and partners make the shift. Through free programmes and Zero Waste Box™ solutions, we offer opportunities for millions to recycle what was previously unrecyclable. And through our new Loop platform, we give consumers the option to buy their everyday products in durable, reusable containers. 

COP26 (Conference of the Parties), November 2021, Glasgow.
COP26 (Conference of the Parties), November 2021, Glasgow.

How does TerraCycle ‘close the loop’ with recycled materials?

We transform our recycled materials into new products. At the 2021 Olympics, in partnership with P&G, we created The Olympic Podium, made from collected and recycled plastic waste – a great platform, both figuratively and literally, to educate on the importance of circularity.

The Olympic Games podium, July 2021, Tokyo.
The Olympic Games podium, July 2021, Tokyo.

Through Loop, we’re demonstrating that there has to be a shift towards reuse too. So whilst we need to keep recycling what has to be recycled, we also need to enable our partners to consider, and perhaps move, towards a reuse model, eliminating unnecessary packaging wherever possible.

Loop allows consumers to carry out their normal grocery shopping whilst incorporating everyday items in reusable packaging. Perceived ‘inconvenience’ often holds consumers back from making more sustainable choices, (like the need to wash and bring their own containers), so we’ve made the whole process as easy as possible.

This will, hopefully, educate people about the importance of both recycling and reuse.

A customer purchasing Loop reusable products at Tesco, September 2021, the Midlands UK.
A customer purchasing Loop reusable products at Tesco, September 2021, the Midlands UK.

What role does collaboration play in fighting the climate crisis?

Collaboration is hugely important to tackling the climate emergency. On issues such as reducing CO2 emissions, recycling, or redesigning packaging altogether, it can certainly have a lot of value and spur innovation but it’s ultimately global collaboration that will help achieve ambitious goals. 

To support collaboration and sharing of knowledge, we’ve created The Loop Alliance. This is a way for us to bring companies together to discuss best practices for reuse, now that many businesses are developing ways to join this movement and to further the work already being done by exchanging findings.

I believe that everybody – governments, businesses and individuals – should be pushing towards doing ‘the right thing’, however that manifests itself for their position in society. I’d also like everyone to get away from the mentality of, ‘if others don’t do it, then my actions don’t matter’. 

Instead, let’s all lead by example and do all we can to change for the better. To ensure steady progress, we should collaborate as much as possible with our counterparts, but if partnerships aren’t readily available, or some countries or companies aren’t doing their fair share, it shouldn’t be an excuse for stopping. The only way to inspire change is to lead from the front and show everyone that yes, we can recycle more, we can reuse more and, crucially, we can reduce CO2 emissions to safeguard the future of our planet.

Collectors drop off their product packaging to be recycled at SunrayRecycle, April 2021, Surbiton.
Collectors drop off their product packaging to be recycled at SunrayRecycle, April 2021, Surbiton.

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