Tom Szaky founded TerraCycle when he was just 19, after seeing college friends feeding food scraps to worms. TerraCycle is now a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste including crisp packets, cigarette butts, chewing gum – and even PPE. In the UK TerraCycle’s LOOP scheme enables shoppers at selected Tesco stores to buy products from leading brands in zero waste, refillable packaging.
Hi, Tom. Thank you for talking to us today. Can you tell us how you went from having the idea of turning waste food into fertilizer – to creating a global business in Terracycle?
Tom Szaky: The idea of converting food waste from the Princeton University cafeterias into vermicompost (aka worm poop fertilizer) was first an entry to the school’s business plan competition. Necessity being the mother of invention, we trash-picked used soda bottles for packaging, since we didn’t have the money to produce new ones. Then we had an entire product made out of garbage!
As we sought to sell more, we needed to source more bottles and so started our first collection program. This was the blueprint for TerraCycle’s largest and most profitable line of business today.
From there we started working with brands to find solutions for the typically non-recyclable – drink pouches, used toothbrushes, cigarette butts, even dirty diapers and chewing gum – proving everything is technically recyclable.
What is TerraCycle’s most popular product or service currently and why?
Tom Szaky: Our most popular and best-known service is the National Recycling Programs, which are funded by brands, manufacturers and sometimes retailers to help individuals and groups collect and recycle specific hard-to-recycle products and packages, at no cost to them.
Accessibility and ease of use are huge to participation. Most programs start as a mail-in scheme, and consumers download a prepaid label to send waste to us in any box. Collectors can also opt in to become public drop-off points. Community members can search by zip code to drop off the waste in person, making it even easier to recycle.
Collectors can also use the programs as a fundraising opportunity, earning points redeemable for a donation to an organization of their choosing or a charitable gift to one of our NGO partners the more they recycle. To date, over $44 million USD has been raised globally for schools and nonprofits.
Today we run over 200 programs in 20 countries around the world, including pen recycling sponsored by BIC, a program for Cathedral City cheese packaging and one for Warburtons bread bags here in the UK.
What were the main advantages of being a teenage entrepreneur?
Tom Szaky: Being a young entrepreneur gave me the opportunity to use a skill that I’ve been able to exercise and maintain to the present day: taking risks.
Young people tend to have the gift of not being afraid of risk and have everything to gain from pursuing big ideas and using creativity to solve problems.
I built my entire company on risks that paid off — including turning down a million dollars to keep with my vision for a business in garbage — but my journey was not without challenges. By taking risks I’ve learned to recover quickly from losses and analyze what we learned to move forward.
I hold myself and my employees to this standard of innovation and in support, I’m the first to say, “Just go for it! What do you have to lose?”
And what do you feel were the main pitfalls?
Tom Szaky: It took some experience and interactions with stakeholders to gain perspective on what was important to them. Early on, I was more focused on what we brought to the table and why a company should work with us, but less focused on the value to the person on the other side of that table.
Once I understood that I needed to show how TerraCycle would help them with their business goals, be it meeting a sustainability objective or gaining market share, that’s when we were really able to grow.
You started TerraCycle twenty years ago. What is your vision for the next two decades?
Tom Szaky: Over the years I’ve been asked, “Why waste?” It’s a fascinating space to be in.
Everything we possess will eventually be owned by a garbage company, yet the waste management industry is incredibly uninnovative, so I find an immense opportunity to fill it in a purposeful way over the next 20 years.
We’ll continue to invent ways to inject waste with value and change perspectives about what is possible. What if you could recycle the unrecyclable as conveniently as (but more complete and reliably than) curbside? What if your toothbrush, child’s dirty diaper, or used motor oil could tell you about the health and safety of your lifestyle? These are concepts we are working on right now.
Of course, in an ideal world we’d eliminate the idea of waste and TerraCycle would cease to exist. Waste is such a huge problem, so we’re not sure that’ll be anytime soon, but that’s the idea.