Innovation That Matters

Tom Szaky of TerraCycle on Recycling the Unrecyclable

Wise Words

The story behind TerraCycle, a global leader in recycling typically hard-to-recycle waste, as told by its founder and CEO.

Springwise is a proud media partner for ChangeNOW 2021, the world’s largest event for the planet. In the lead-up to this year’s summit, which will take place online from 27 — 29 May, we are gaining insights from some of the key innovators and changemakers taking part in this year’s event. Tom Szaky will be part of a panel discussion on the circular economy on the 27th.

We first spotted TerraCycle way back in 2007, under the eye-catching headline: “GARBAGE INTO GOLD, VIA WORM POOP.”

What started out as a system to create liquid fertilizer from millions of worms and organic waste from Princeton University’s dining halls has evolved into a global recycling program for hard-to-recycle waste, much of which is used to create new products.

“The shift came when I realized we could make a larger impact by using product and packaging waste deemed to have no value to create new raw materials that are then sold to manufacturers to produce new products,” Tom Szaky, CEO and Founder of TerraCycle, told Springwise.

According to TerraCycle, its programmes have 202 million people collecting and recycling across 21 countries, in addition to over $44 million raised for charities around the world. It offers free recycling programmes that are funded by brands and retailers, among many other initiatives.

We wanted to find out more about TerraCycle’s journey and what continues to drive its creator.

— Justin Sablich, Editor, Springwise

Where did the original idea for TerraCycle come from? 

TerraCycle began as a dream of mine when I was a freshman studying at Princeton. The business began to take shape after it was incorporated in 2003 as the manufacturer of a simple organic fertilizer. Our first business venture was produced by feeding leftovers from the Princeton University cafeteria to a large worm farm and liquefying the resulting compost into an entirely organic fertilizer. This initial product was then fittingly bottled in used soda bottles collected from recycling bins. The result was the world’s first product made from and packaged entirely in waste.

While we no longer make the fertilizer that established our reputation, TerraCycle is now an international leader in recycling the unrecyclable. The shift came when I realized we could make a larger impact by using product and packaging waste deemed to have no value to create new raw materials that are then sold to manufacturers to produce new products.

What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work with TerraCycle?

Before starting TerraCycle, I first got my feet wet with entrepreneurism during my teenage years in Canada when I started three small “dot com” companies and a web design company that served some high-profile clients. As a young adult, I came to the United States to attend Princeton University where I studied economics and really solidified my love for entrepreneurism. 

What does success look like for TerraCycle? Or in other words, what is the ultimate goal?

Unlike most companies, TerraCycle’s ideal world (one without waste) would essentially render the company obsolete. While I would be okay with that, TerraCycle continues to innovate with programs like Loop to try to move companies and individuals away from linear economies and toward circular ones. 

Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how businesses and consumers approach recycling in general?

From our perspective, we’ve definitely seen a strong correlation between the rising prominence of environmental headlines in the news and the public’s concern surrounding the final destination of their waste. Plastic pollution is on everyone’s mind and consumers are beginning to understand that they can prompt change by voting with their dollar. With so many brands to choose from, an individual may now opt for one over the other solely based on the company’s sustainable track record and manufacturers know they have to make changes or be left behind.

What are the key challenges you continue to face in your efforts to offer recycling programmes with mass appeal?

I think one of the key challenges is education. There is a big difference between what is technically recyclable and what is practically recyclable. There are a lot of brand owners, packaging manufacturers and consumers thinking their packaging is recyclable, and while maybe it is technically, it is not likely to actually be recycled.  

How do gatherings like ChangeNOW ultimately aid you in your own efforts and help spur meaningful change on a global scale?

Collaboration is at the heart of how TerraCycle operates – we work with brands, individuals, cities, and retailers, as well as grassroots community-led collection efforts toward a common goal. In the same way, ChangeNOW harnesses the power of collaboration and joint actions to solve a global problem, eliminating the idea of waste is a complex task that requires support from a lot of stakeholders.                                                                                                       

What keeps you motivated during times of frustration?

I love coming to work every day. TerraCycle is growing and we have so many incredibly exciting, interesting things underway. We have great employees who are energized by the work they do and the people they work with inside and outside the company. There might be times I’m frustrated, but they don’t last very long.

Who or what inspires you personally? 

There are a lot of people trying to do the right thing. There has been a lot of attention focused on the environment over the past few years, and particularly during COVID. I really see that individuals, companies and governments have really woken up to the problem at hand. 

Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring purpose-driven entrepreneurs and/or environmental activists? 

Just get out there and do it. It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear of failure or over analyze every scenario, but you never know if you will succeed until you try and failures are also learnings. You just have to make sure you don’t keep repeating the same “learnings.”