Everyone knows the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” However, not everyone makes this motto their life’s work – but, of course, I am far from the average businessman. My name is Tom Szaky, and I am the CEO and Founder of TerraCycle, a company I founded in 2002 as a 20-year old Princeton dropout.
When I matriculated to Princeton University as a freshman, the amount of waste from the cafeterias and the dorms both disgusted and intrigued me. I wondered, “Could a business be built entirely by making new items out of other people’s garbage?” That question has dominated my life in the years since. What began as a college kid bottling worm poop to sell as an organic fertilizer has turned into an international upcycling and recycling company.
We work with over 150,000 schools, communities, and businesses to collect difficult-to-recycle post-consumer packaging and products, turning them into sustainable, affordable materials and products. Recently, we teamed up with two new partners who can help us change how and what we recycle.
Redefining “Recyclable” as a Way to Eliminate Waste
I’ve always cared about environmental issues, but over the course of my work with TerraCycle my goals have definitely expanded. As the company grows, our ideas grow along with it, and we’ve been able to connect with millions of people to spread our take on recycling and waste.
Our passion isn’t just to sell fertilizer and eco-friendly products; it is to redefine what we think of as “recyclable” to completely eliminate the idea of waste altogether. I have always been fascinated by waste and recycling, but from an environmental and entrepreneurial standpoint.
It first started when I emigrated from Communist Hungary in the late 1980s and eventually settled with my family in Toronto, Canada. Even in a more sustainably-minded place like Canada, I was stunned by how much was thrown away and how planned obsolescence was so commonplace.
New Reality TV Show Will Help Promote Recycling Across America and Our Mission at TerraCycle
We can’t hope to accomplish this goal by ourselves, and luckily we don’t have to, thanks to a new, exciting partnership that brings together non-profits, social enterprise and entertainment media – all for a good cause! Recently, we’ve teamed up with two great new allies: Pivot, a new socially-minded television network launched by Participant Media (makers of An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me and more) and Recycle Across America.
Pivot, a network catering to socially minded young people, will be airing TerraCycle’s new reality show, “Human Resources,” premiering August 8, 2014. We’re not letting fame get to our heads (we may be based in New Jersey, but we’re no Jersey Shore). Our hope is that Pivot will give us a major platform to share TerraCycle and Recycle Across America’s mission with new audiences, while allowing us to remain true to our core values here at TerraCycle. We decided that the perfect way to accomplish that was to start a social action campaign.
A Lack of Standardized Recycling Labels Confuses and Leads to Recycling Stream Contamination
The Recycle Right campaign aims to raise recycling awareness and provide practical solutions to common recycling problems. One of its main goals is to expand the use of standardized recycling labels, like those available through Recycle Across America.
With millions of different recycling labels being used around the world, it’s easy to get confused about what can and can’t get recycled in specific bins. This leads to trash and other hard-to-recycle materials getting mixed in with recyclables, which can actually pollute the recycling stream during processing. Standardized labels can even increase recycling rates by more than 50% and significantly decrease the amount of trash that ends up in the bins. (Link here to learn more about Recycle Across America’s mission to simplify the act of recycling for the general public.)
What Does Recyclable Versus Unrecyclable Mean?
While Recycle Across America works to make traditional recycling easier for everyone, TerraCycle works with waste materials that can’t be traditionally recycled through municipal programs.
Plastic numbers 1 and 2, for example, are readily recyclable in most municipalities, as they are plentiful and economically worth recycling (the price of the recycled material is higher than the cost of the collection, sorting and recycling processes).
Other things, like polystyrene foam food containers or chip bags, are considered “unrecyclable” because the potential cost of collecting and recycling those materials is higher than the recycled end-product would be worth. That’s where TerraCycle comes in.
Recycling and Repurposing Just About Anything, Including “Unrecyclable” Stuff
Through our recycling programs which collect within dozens of specific waste streams, we’ve been able to recycle everything from yogurt cups and snack bags, to chewing gum and cigarette butts. Between TerraCycle and Recycle Across America, our goal is to find a way to recycle or repurpose just about anything.
In time, we hope to help shape a world where nothing is wasted. We’re lucky to have the support of Pivot and Recycle Across America in this endeavor, and we’re proud to support their work as well. (Link here for a more detailed list of items that TerraCycle collects and here to see the myriad products that TerraCycle creates from waste.)
Teaming Up With Other Like-Minded Organizations is Essential to Promoting Change
I think of this partnership as a kind of “green trifecta.” We’re combining socially-conscious media, a nonprofit, and a for-profit company to create a collaboration that will work to tackle the mounting waste issue in our country, while getting the word out via a socially-minded media platform.
It’s kind of like when all of the Planeteers on Captain Planet combine their element rings together. We know that no one can change the world alone, but working with other great organizations can definitely have a major impact on changing how and what we recycle. I hope you’ll join our efforts at http://www.takepart.com/humanresources
You can buy Tom Szaky’s books “Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It” and “Revolution in a Bottle: How Terracycle Is Eliminating the Idea of Waste” here.