A Path to Progress - His company now is an international leader in 'recycling the unrecyclable.'
|Tom Szaky founded TerraCycle, based in Trenton, N.J. The company collects hard-to-recycle materials and items and works to repurpose or recycle them into other products.|
Trenton, N.J. — The lobby of TerraCycle’s global headquarters is
far from what might be expected for a company that reported $18.7
million in revenue in 2014.
Mismatched couches and a row of aged
bowling alley chairs surround a shipping pallet-turned-coffee table. The
company’s logo on a wall is created from recycled juice packets.
Above, light fixtures are enlivened with used product containers and bottles. The floor is covered in used artificial turf.
While the ambiance of TerraCycle’s Trenton, N.J., digs might be more
appropriate for a basement start-up, it is actually an indication of the
company’s core mission: reducing waste.
“Everything around us will become waste,”
says Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s chief executive officer. “Our focus is on
anything that you cannot recycle today, and that is 75 percent of all
objects in the world.”
Mr. Szaky founded TerraCycle in 2001 while a
freshman at Princeton University. He and another student fed dining
hall leftovers to worms and liquefied the worm compost, creating an
organic and highly effective fertilizer. Lacking the money to package
their product, the duo used soda bottles they retrieved from recycling
bins as containers to peddle the worm poop.
“That was the
inspirational moment,” says Szaky, who decided to drop out of Princeton
to pursue TerraCycle as a full-time endeavor. “What got me very excited
was ... waste as a business idea.”
Today, TerraCycle is an
international leader in “recycling the unrecyclable,” building off the
worm compost idea and using other waste materials to craft new products.
With eight offices around the world and some 125 employees, TerraCycle
runs recycling programs in more than 350,000 locations in 22 countries.
TerraCycle engages with partners willing to invest in making their
products recyclable. They include consumer product companies, retailers,
factories, municipalities, and even consumers themselves.
and his team devise a plan to deal with each type of waste, and then
process the waste through refurbishing it into something useful or
through reprocessing it for recycling.
One of TerraCycle’s
initiatives awards points to participants who then can redeem them in
the form of charitable donations to schools and other nonprofit
organizations. These contributions have surpassed $10 million to date.
collected material can be combined with other waste to be recycled into
new products, ranging from tote bags made from used Capri Sun juice
packets to desk clocks made from vinyl records. Waste can even be turned
into larger products such as picnic tables and rain barrels.
Tom’s of Maine, which makes natural personal care products, is one of TerraCycle’s long-standing partners.
helps us look at everything from new ways to package our product to
what consumers can do with it once it’s in their home,” says Susan
Dewhirst, the company’s public relations and goodness programs manager.
“TerraCycle has had an enormous impact on Tom’s of Maine packaging
choices and how we demonstrate our environmental commitment to our
A recent visit to his Trenton office found Szaky had
just finished phone calls with a tea company and an industrial safety
equipment manufacturer exploring ways to recycle or repurpose their
waste. That had followed just hours after his return from a meeting in
Europe with a major coffee company.
Sitting at a conference table
consisting of a recycled slab of wood propped up on two wine barrels –
which, along with his desk, is partitioned from the rest of the office
by strands of clear, empty soda bottles hung from the ceiling – Szaky
discussed the entrepreneurial nature of TerraCycle.
“We are not a
start-up ... anymore, but you need to maintain that culture because that
is how you get hyper innovation,” he says. “The only way to win is to
constantly be disruptive, and to constantly disrupt yourself.”
grew up in Budapest, Hungary, prior to the fall of communism and has
been intrigued by entrepreneurship ever since he arrived in North
America. He sees the world of business as a vehicle for positive social
“I think business is more powerful than war, and more
powerful than politics,” he says. “It transcends borders very easily,
and it is much more lasting.”
He rejects the paradigm that
businesses are intended only to generate profits, and that only
charities can do good. His goal is to find a way to overlap those
“It requires a really strong focus on purpose, and fundamentally deprioritizing pure profit to a degree,” Szaky concedes.
TerraCycle is a for-profit enterprise, its focus on also doing good is
seen not only in the millions of dollars it has contributed to various
causes, but also in the effect it has had on the actions of consumers
and corporations regarding waste and its environmental impact.
commitment is evident in the property TerraCycle occupies in Trenton – a
rehabbed warehouse that had been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.
TerraCycle has added four adjoining buildings, adorned on the exterior
by graffiti from local artists who return almost on a weekly basis to
reinvent the facade of the buildings.
This sense of purpose is
what motivates Szaky, he says. “Man is it fun to come in and feel so
freaking good each day about what one does,” he says, smiling.
John Replogle is CEO of Seventh Generation Inc., which makes environmentally friendly products.
is one of the brightest guys I have ever met; he has both an analytical
and a creative mind, and his ability to think differently is what I
admire so greatly,” says Mr. Replogle, an investor in TerraCycle since
2009 and a former member of its board. Szaky has an incredible drive to
improve the way the world operates, “to de-junk the world, if you will,”
TerraCycle has experienced its share of false
starts and setbacks. “I know there have been many ventures that Tom has
tried to undertake that haven’t worked,” Replogle says, “and he has done
what every entrepreneur does: He has taken the learning from that and
Szaky has also encountered some materials that, at
least so far, cannot be recycled. Among them are sandpaper, which is
difficult to process, and expired medications, which are required by law
to be incinerated.
Another challenge: persuading partners to
invest in recycling. “You have to delight people into the answer,” he
says. “It is not about scaring them into complying.”
written a book about TerraCycle, and the company even has its own TV
program, “Human Resources,” which airs on the cable channel Pivot. The
“docucomedy” provides viewers with an entertaining program, Szaky says,
while also getting the word out about TerraCycle.
redirecting nearly 2 million pounds of waste per week away from
landfills, TerraCycle is not the ultimate solution to waste, Szaky says.
“We cannot solve the garbage problem, partly because we are a reaction
to the problem,” he says. “The cause of all of this is rampant
His biggest hope, Szaky says, is that more people
will be inspired to change their everyday patterns of consumption and
reduce the amount of waste they create.
“I would love for people
to make [TerraCycle] irrelevant through their choices and consumption.
Wouldn’t that be awesome?” he says, chuckling. “And then I get to start