The Wonderful Green World of TerraCycle
Creating a More Sustainable Planet by Eliminating the Idea of Waste
Since the end of World War II, economic growth and prosperity in most corners of the world has been nearly miraculous, raising the quality of life for billions of inhabitants to historic heights. But it has come at an extremely high cost to our environment. One of the most disgraceful consequences of such affluence has been the unintended effects of ‘disposable consumerism,’ as starkly evidenced by the massive field of floating plastic waste and chemical sludge dubbed the “Great Pacific garbage patch.”
Also called the “Pacific trash vortex,” it is a gyre of discarded marine waste located about halfway between California and Hawaii. First described in a 1988 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) paper, its scope is now estimated to range between the sizes of Texas and Russia, and it contains 1.8 trillion pieces of debris in the consistency of a toxin-thickened soup.
A July 2017 study conducted by the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and others, concluded that more than 8.5 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. According to Science Daily, the estimate is that 9% of the plastic has been recycled, 12% incinerated, and the remaining 7 billion tons is either in landfills or littering our rivers, oceans and lands.
Would you be surprised to hear that while 75% of the U.S. waste stream is able to be recycled or composted, only 34% makes it into proper recycling channels? (source: EPA) The statistics are even worse for plastic. Many of those fully eager to participate in recycling and waste reduction struggle with inadequate local recycling resources, public programs varying from one region to the next. What are we missing? The answer, unfortunately, is a true commitment.
The Beginning of a Solution
In 2001, Tom Szaky coupled his “true commitment” with a vision larger than the reprehensible trash vortex itself. Szaky got the idea of TerraCycle as a college freshman at Princeton University with a business model that came to him after a business plan came to his attention. He took the immediate risk of taking on hundreds, soon thousands, of employees, that worked day and night for no compensation other than their meals. You could say he treated them like dirt.
This brigade of industrious, well-fed workers were earthworms, and their task was to break down organic kitchen waste in a “vermicompost” heap – an environmentally friendly process, and free labor. The purpose of this was to convert waste into liquid fertilizer. The equally industrious Szaky soon hit on the idea of distributing the product in recycled plastic bottles – an entire product made out of garbage!
Eventually dropping out of college to focus on the business, in order to provide a larger supply of used bottles, Szaky created the “Bottle Brigade,” TerraCycle’s first collection program, which would provide the model for the sponsored waste collection platform. This today remains the company’s largest and most profitable line of business today.
The entire arrangement was an immediate hit and Szaky’s innovative ideas continued to flow from there. It is not hyperbolic to compare his vast imagination to that of the original ‘Imagineer’ himself, Walt Disney. Coming up on two decades now, Szaky has been operating at hyper-speed to create the green world of TerraCycle.
In a Policygenius Magazine column written by Myles Ma (March 14, 2018) called ‘Ask a Genius,’ Szaky said this: “We are trying to solve something — garbage — that goes out of sight, out of mind and is cheap to throw away or burn. We are asking a person to invest their time and money to do something with it that’s significantly better but not nearly as simple.”
Deploying a strategy of partnering with schools, community organizations, municipalities and companies small and large, TerraCycle collects and recycles traditionally ‘non-recyclable’ waste material through free, brand-sponsored programs at no cost to consumers. TerraCycle also offers custom recycling solutions for nearly every type of waste stream, and is sometimes paid to cart the waste away from government and corporate facilities.
To be clear, according to TerraCycle, everything is technically recyclable; through R & D and scientific research, the company has proven that nothing is beyond recycling. In the conventional sense, “recyclable” refers to items currently accepted by most municipal recycling programs, including uncoated paper and cardboard, some types of glass and plastic, and aluminum cans and tins – – items that we regularly toss into our bins.
Traditionally, “non-recyclable” refers to items that cost too much to collect and process relative to profitability as recycled raw material, so the major waste management companies opt to either bury or burn it.
Szaky, taking a page from nature where there is no such thing as waste, thought this concept of some material being not viewed as worth recycling as foolishly missing out on economic opportunities. So, he built his company with the express purpose of eliminating the very idea of waste. Every molecule of pre and post consumer waste TerraCycle collects would have otherwise been destined to rot in landfills or denigrate our air, rivers, oceans and land.
Such molecular structures collected include candy wrappers, juice pouches and boxes, coffee capsules, writing instruments, nitrile gloves, food packaging, flexible food packaging, fabrics, cigarette butts, even menstrual care. You name it, they probably have a solution for it. The discarded material is recycled into plastic pellets and other raw material for use in new products.
The reception to their evolving concepts and products has been so enthusiastic that TerraCycle has been revolutionizing its own business model as well. Mostly through company sponsorship of recycling programs free to consumers, TerraCycle boasts over 200 distinct brand partnerships around the globe. These brands include Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Hasbro, Solo, Arm & Hammer, Tom’s of Maine, Brita, and too many others to mention.
TerraCycle has even taken the bold step of selling a portion of their American subsidiary to the public for the first time as part of their Regulation A offering. Advocates can now own a piece of a recycling business that “puts people and the planet before profit to really make a difference in the world,” as Szaky told Policygenius Myles Ma.
A representative list of industrial products made with TerraCycle’s recycled materials include shipping containers and pallets, park benches, playground equipment, plastic lumber and pavers, bike racks, product containers, garbage cans, and appropriately, recycling bins.
TerraCycle’s next phase on its mission to eliminate waste is an ecommerce system that delivers the world’s favorite brands to the doors of consumers in durable, refillable packaging, instead of disposable materials, doing away with waste at the source:Loop. Designed to be as convenient as single-use items, Loop harkens back to “the milkman” models of yore and is set to pilot in the New York City and Paris markets in May 2019.
Influencing the Influencer
Szaky has been influenced by several equally innovative people over the years, such as Seth Goldman, CEO of the Honest Tea Company. In his 2018 interview with Myles Ma, he said the following:
“We were having a conversation about how children’s drinks were starting to be sold in pouches that weren’t recyclable. Seth asked me if I could come up with a solution to keep all those pouches from heading to the landfill. I jumped on this opportunity and moved the business down a different path. That’s how TerraCycle’s “sponsored waste” business was born.”
In a Princeton dormitory room eighteen years ago, an entirely new business category was conceived and, once rolled-out, its meteoric growth continues to accelerate. In the foreword of Szaky’s 2009 book, Revolution in a Bottle. Paul Hawken says, “In a rare feat, Szaky’s vision benefits the earth, the poor, and giant corporations all at the same time.”
Simply put, Tom Szaky is a modern-day rock star. His amazing story is one of revolution, recognizing a big problem and setting out to fix it in a transformative way. In doing so, he is radically changing our world for the better and inspiring others to take more thoughtful and positive actions to halt and reverse our advancing tide of waste.
Still a young man, Szaky has much remaining to do in a world continuing to produce too much waste. Thus, we are nowhere near the end of his magical tale. Click here to learn more about Tom Szaky in our exclusive Q&A.