Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle and Loop

Eliminating the Idea of Waste®

Waste is a negative value commodity; people pay to have it taken away. Unwanted or unusable materials, things that have no value or no longer have value, waste can be everything from dumpsters full of trash, the extra food on a plate, to the single-use plastics the world throws away every day. 

The waste management industry is the one line of work that will eventually own everything on the planet; the way the world works right now, everything we produce, buy, or make is going to end up as waste. 

While viable and growing, the sector’s main value proposition is largely driving solutions that keep waste out of sight and out of mind. Landfilled, incinerated, and otherwise disposed of, the faster and cheaper we can get rid of it, the better. With this, waste is not the sexiest of topics. 

A New Idea

Very-visible environmental issues of ocean pollution, land-based litter, ecosystem disruption, and dwindling natural resources aside, what’s actually so interesting about waste is that it’s not as much a fact as it is an idea. A concept. A construct that can be undone, and unlocked for endless potential in innovation and profit.

The long and short of it is waste didn’t really exist until about 70 years ago, when mass production, complex yet inexpensive materials (aka plastics), and consumerism came on the scene. Before this, humans did produce and consume, but resources were treated as precious, finite. Everything had value and could be repurposed, as natural systems do intuitively.

Durable return systems like “the milkman,” repairing and reusing high-value items like clothing, shoes, and furniture fell to the wayside of buying new and throwing away. Production and marketing outpaced our ability (or, desire) to create recovery systems for products and packaging we didn’t want anymore.

Getting Back on Track

Today, humanity makes and purchases 70 times more stuff today than we did in the 1950s and a full garbage truck worth of plastic enters the ocean every minute of every day. If nothing changes, we’re projected to see that jump to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.

While those numbers are not exactly positive, the good news is that it is possible to design our way back if we act now. What separates garbage from gold, trash from treasure, is a matter of perspective. In order to solve our issues with waste, we must show the world the significance of investing in systems that prioritize collecting, processing, and otherwise capturing the value of products, packaging, energy, water, and other resources to what we are doing now. 

I got the idea to start a company in 2001 and TerraCycle® was founded on the original idea of bottling worm poop that was made  by wrigglers eating Princeton University’s cafeteria food waste. Seriously. One thing led to another, as we were trash picking used beverage bottles for the packaging: an entire product made from garbage.

We had filled a gap in the market by looking at materials most people would consider trash, less than trash (some of our first employees didn’t have the stomach for it…), and packaging it so its value could be marketed to everyday people. Realizing early on that business is the most powerful force for change, we looked to other ways we could turn waste into profits.

Eliminating the Idea of Waste® 

TerraCycle is today the globally award-winning company known for creating recycling solutions for nearly everything the world would consider trash: empty writing utensils, marine plastic litter collected off beaches, even dirty diapers, cigarette butts, and used contact lenses. 

Where the global recycling system is incomplete, confusing, and varies region to region, we work with the CPG juggernauts PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and Unilever, to bring free national recycling programs to consumers. The nation’s leading retailers, such as Kroger, ShopRite, and Meijer, help us create access.

Our mission is literally Eliminating the Idea of Waste®. For everything we don’t have a sponsored recycling program for, our Zero Waste Box™ system allows businesses, facilities, and households to take matters into their own hands at one set cost for collection, logistics, and recycling. 

By creating access, driving participation, maintaining high separation of materials, and creating an end-market for the items collected through our programs (our materials are “storied” and carry a strong narrative—”recycled beach plastic” or “recycled cosmetics” give producers an opportunity to stand out), we supplement all ingredients of a successful recycling system.

TerraCycle has turned waste—a human-made problem that does not exist in nature—into a profitable $50 million enterprise. The environmental ROI is a planet left to live on, but using key performance indicators (KPIs), businesses working with us measure returns in other areas, such as sustainability marketing ROI and by pioneering solutions in the product and service space. 

Looking Forward

As TerraCycle grows, so does our ability to tackle the issues of waste. In 2017, the creation of our Regulated Waste division via the acquisition of Air Cycle Corporation marked our foray into universal and hazardous waste, the disposal of which is regulated by the EPA. We’ve been able to help facilities across America improve results, save money, and protect the environment while providing EPA, OSHA and ACGIH compliance.

TerraCycle’s new circular shopping platform Loop works with companies (many of which also have a recycling program with us) to create durable versions of their own goods previously housed in single-use packaging, solving for waste at the root cause: disposability. The products are offered in a combination of glass, stainless steel, aluminum and engineered plastics designed to be reused; when they do wear out, TerraCycle is able to recycle them.

Waste is the ultimate have-not, and my mission with TerraCycle and Loop is to go where no other business has gone before to create something out of less than nothing. Part of the magic of it is that we’re able to share our tools and perspectives with industries around the world and help them use it to create value that scales.

Where the public sector (aka governments and their programs) may fail to address the inefficiencies of current systems by sanctioning businesses to behave otherwise, consumers look to private entities like us and our partners to step up and create the tools they can use to reduce waste.

Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of complex waste streams. TerraCycle operates in 21 countries, working with some of the world’s largest brands, retailers and manufacturers to create national platforms to recycle products and packaging that otherwise go to landfill or incineration. It also created a new circular shopping platform called Loop that enables consumers to purchase products in durable, reusable packaging.

Tom and TerraCycle have received hundreds of awards and recognition from organizations including the United Nations, World Economic Forum, Fortune Magazine and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Tom is the author of four books, Revolution in a Bottle, Outsmart Waste, Make Garbage Great and The Future of Packaging

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