FEATURED MEMBER – Tom Szaky

Posted on December 14, 2010

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Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a company that has turned a lot of heads by making environmentally friendly products out of non-recyclable waste materials.

                               

He started the company in 2001 aged 19 years old, and a freshman at Princeton University. He hoped to find a way to make environmental responsibility good for businesses. TerraCycle started out as a business selling fertilizer produced by Tom’s large worm farm. After a shaky start, the company attracted investment thanks to a local radio station taking an interest. However, a lack of funds left the business unable to afford proper packaging, so Szaky started shipping his fertilizer to places like Home Depot and Walmart in used soda bottles. Other companies started asking for advice on dealing with their waste, and Tom decided there was a market for a business that could find innovative uses for non-recyclable garbage. TerraCycle started turning old Stonyfield Farm yogurt pots into plant containers, and Capri Sun drinks pouches into holdalls. The business is able to turn a profit out of raw materials that other companies are more than happy to unload on them.
 
As well as Home Depot and Walmart, TerraCycle also ships products to Target, OfficeMax, Petco and Whole Foods Market, and collects waste materials from Starbucks, Kraft Foods, SC Johnson, Mars, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Nestlé. They operate in six countries and hope to expand to more soon. The company has earned awards and accolades from Inc. Magazine, Red Herring, The Environmental Business Journal, The Social Business Network and Zerofootprint. TerraCycle also has a scheme where schools and other nonprofit organizations are paid to collect waste materials for the company to use.

                                         

Q.  Making products out of non-recyclable materials is not the first ‘Get Rich Quick’ scheme that would occur to most people. How have you become so successful at it?
A.  Ha! I would definitely agree that this is far from a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. I am hoping it is a ´get rich slow, but do it the right way, scheme. I think the opportunity lies in the lack of competition. Other than waste management and the recent arrival  of waste-to-fuel companies, few others are focusing on waste as raw material.
Furthermore I think the timing was right. More consumers are looking for ways to be more sustainable, more responsible, but most are not willing to make major sacrifices quite yet. We are giving them an easy, fun, affordable way to get involved and do good without having to change their lifestyle too drastically. I hope we are serving as a bridge to a world where consumerism and business are conducted in a much more responsible way.

Q.  What has motivated you to pursue this as a business model?
A.  Again, it was opportunity. Waste was everywhere I looked and it struck me as an opportunity to help solve a social and environmental woe whilst also developing a profitable business model.  Who could resist?

Q.  Do you think TerraCycle’s philosophy that environmental responsibility and good business sense can work together is really possible?
A.  Not possible – essential. In fact I truly believe it is the only future for business, and I say that as a businessman, not just an environmentalist. The reasons are simple.
Firstly, natural resources are limited, and fossil fuel energy is growing more and more expensive. Companies that can find ways to tap into recycled materials and renewable energy will be at a great fiscal advantage.  Once some companies show the profitably of these techniques, the rest will follow.
Secondly, consumers continue to demand more social and environmental responsibility from companies. As that continues to happen companies will be forced to respond. Want to change the world? Vote with your dollars. Look at how Walmart has become a leader through sustainable packaging and sourcing. Look at the Greenworks line now offered by Clorox. These came about due to consumer demand, not government regulation.

Q.  Waste disposal is a huge problem for many if not most large businesses. What can they be doing?
A.  Work with TerraCycle of course! But seriously, they need to explore the three “r’s” to find solutions that will help them environmentally and fiscally. Waste material equals waste money. Reduce by finding ways to decrease waste through better Standards of Operations. Reuse by partnering with TerraCycle and other companies or by finding creative ways to put waste to work using their own facilities.  Recycle by finding processes to put their waste back into their own supply chain or to sell to others for the same purpose.

Q.  What inspired you to drop out of Princeton and pursue TerraCycle full-time? There must have been many doubters.
A.  Again, it was opportunity. I felt like if I didn’t pursue my business model right away someone else would. Also, school felt like running on a hamster wheel. So much work and research and writing for a paper or project that only one person would ever see? Seemed like a waste of time and effort to me.

Q.  What challenges has TerraCycle faced?
A.  Many challenges. Too many to tell. But foremost is convincing retailers, manufactures and consumers that just because a product is made from garbage, doesn’t mean it is garbage.

Q.  How else has the rise of ‘eco-capitalism’ impacted business practices?
A.  I think that business of all ilk are starting to realise that eco-capitalistic practices can be good for their bottom line and that is key. As more businesses realise this fundmental fact, the brighter the future will be in my eyes.

Q.  You organize TerraCycle Brigades. Can you tell us more about these?
A.  TerraCycle runs free collection programs that pay schools and charities to collect non-recyclable waste. So, for every drinks pouch, yogurt cup, glue bottle, etc. that a group collects we contribute 2 cents back to their organization. The programs are free to sign up for and TerraCycle covers all shipping charges, meaning they never cost a penny! Interested parties can sign up in the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, Brazil or Sweden at the moment.

Q.  What does the future hold for TerraCycle?
A.  Hopefully continuing to grow to collect more items (currently 32 and counting) in more countries (by mid-2011 we should be in over 15 countries.) Eventually, we want to remove the word “garbage” from the common lexicon. Everything can be recycled or reused with enough innovation and determination.
 
Q.  How do you hope Pelime can help with this?
A.  By bringing like-minded people together to work to a common cause. This is vital to the success of any movement. There are challenges and hurdles ahead if we truly want to achieve a more peaceful, socially and environmentally responsible society. It is only by working together that we can overcome the forces that will fight against change.

    

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