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.
Seems like a great partnership!
I’ve always found the Terracycle model intriguing. Engage consumers in the upcycling process by collecting their waste, create consumer goods out of it and then sell those products back to consumers. All while educating consumers on the importance of waste reduction and reusing materials. Partnering with Recycle Across America seems like a logical step in promoting better waste management and ensuring recyclable goods are going to the correct recycling bins and facilities.
While it is true better and more clear signage helps in ensuring consumers are disposing of materials correctly there still needs to be better education from local municipalities, in schools, in the workplace and other community based areas about the lifecycle of products – from production to disposal. The inconsistencies across the country of what one location recycles and another will not, I think is the most confusing for citizens and consumers alike. Therefore, it is important that along with having standardized signage across America that there is a standardized system for disposing of waste as well. This will only make things easier for consumers to reduce their waste and dispose of it correctly
Thank you so much for this post. This is my first time hearing of TerraCycle (where have I been?) and I am so excited about this opportunity – as a whole. Not only is the publicity of this initiative truly incredible, but the knowledge that something like this exists is close to life-changing for me. Like many of my fellow waste-haters, I try to avoid sending anything off to a landfill. Often it’s these non-recycables that stump me. I get some degree of eco-anxiety about eating energy bars knowing that the wrappers will go to complete waste. Now, I will get so much more enjoyment out of these products as I can collect all the anxiety-provoking packages! Hopefully, I can get my office on board too!
Another informative and practical post from wehatetowaste – thank you!
I love the work Terracycle and Recycle Across America are doing and it seems like a great partnership to make some impact with waste. I am a firm believer that we really do need to revamp the recycling system in this country through standardization. Recycling is often the only “green” action regular folks take and feel good enough about. Meanwhile, half the things I see in recycling bins don’t belong and also jeopardize the legitimate materials that are in there. If we can’t make recycling easy or at least easy to decipher the labels, how can we expect people to get on board with more complicated, and often more impactful, actions? If Recycle Across America can make things easier and increase diversion rates for recycling and companies like Terracycle can grow even larger to handle the non-recyclables we can do a lot to remove “waste” from the system. Throw in a standardized and widespread organics collection (composting) program and who knows, maybe the garbage can will become a thing of the past.
I’m always the go to girl for friend & family questions about recycling–it’s almost as if you need to be trained for your city and/or state to know what, when and where to put your recyclables. What should be one of the easiest ways for people to enter into an environmental consciousness can be daunting. I think the work TerraCycle and Recycle Across America are doing can make recycling not only more effective across the US but will make collective environmental movements more accessible to more people.
After starting up a TerraCycle brigade at my college, it was amazing to witness how many people, with no prior understanding or care about what they were throwing away, really made large strides towards higher engagement and education of their peers. Great work, waiting for the Aug 8th premier!
I agree that a federal recycling standard is key. The contradictory recycling ‘rules’ in various towns, cities and states nationwide have created a fragmented mess, not to mention millions of tons of unnecessary waste. Even when a municipality has a great recycling program, people still don’t comply. Just this week I passed by a neighbor’s garbage can filled with a bag of would-be recyclables mixed with other nasty stuff, rendering the whole container as refuse. These people didn’t even try to rinse their jars and containers, let alone recycle.
I, on the other hand, have been called a Recycling Zealot (sometimes Nazi) by my family and friends. Before New York City expanded its plastics recycling program last year (collecting beyond 1s and 2s), I had been hoarding all of my 4s, 5s, 6s and 7s and driving them to Connecticut every time I went to go visit my parents. I avoided trashing these recyclable items by delivering them to a location that accepted them. Now I happen to live outside of the city in an area that doesn’t accept Tetra Pak containers, so maybe I’ll have to transport them all back to New York City?! This is where it gets silly.
In all seriousness, I am a big fan of TerraCycle. My only hope is that one day individuals can send in a collection of combined items on your ‘accepted’ list as opposed to having to form a brigade first to collect single items. Is that ever going to happen? Just say the word and I will send you my box of Brita filters, energy bar wrappers and writing instruments.
Just came across this and though I would share on this post:
This Friday (Oct 3, 2014) from 12-1pm Eastern there is a Webinar you can sign up for to ask Tom Szaky anything:
“This is your opportunity to learn anything and everything about TerraCycle and Tom’s expedition to defeating the concept of waste.”
Want to learn more about Tom Szaky and his inspiring “Rubbish to Riches” story, check out this link from the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31036601
This past summer I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work as an intern with TerraCycle’s Executive Team. The experience was a turning point in terms of my conception of the power of business as a force for good. The TerraCycle model not only addresses a vital issue of sustainability but also contributes millions of dollars to charity at the same time. It has proven that waste is not “garbage” but instead is a resource that can be leveraged to create new and innovative materials and products. This is in-line with the vision of a circular economy, or a “cradle-to-cradle” model of consumption. By allowing our economy to become regenerative rather than destructive, we can bring about a sustainability revolution. TerraCycle is just one part of this process, but an important one. In the end, we will need more visionaries like Tom in order to combat the environmental issues that confront us.
What a great company with a beautiful mission! I love how TerraCycle is working to not only promote recycling awareness, but also actively broadening the scope of things that can be recycled. Although many people recycle, not everyone is recycling the right way. I worked at the City of Houston Solids Waste Management Department as an intern and I know this is a big problem that companies face, putting things that are not meant to be recycled into the recycling bin can affect the whole system. So I think it is great that TerraCycle is striving to educate the public on recycling!
I LOVE Terracycle’s mission! I first learned about it by looking at the back of my Tom’s of Maine toothpaste tube! It makes me happy to know that there is a company working to recycle the “unrecyclable” items would end up in the trash can, or that would be sorted out of the municipal recycling system. I feel much more confident that my contact lens containers will have a second life instead of ending up in the landfill or ocean.