Tom Szaky: Turning waste into new products
By 'leveraging garbage,' this entrepreneur is grinding away at the goal of eliminating waste.
Mon, Apr 23 2012 at 1:00 AM
WASTE NOT: Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle, a company that seeks to create national recycling systems for previously non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste. (Photo courtesy of Tom Szaky)
“Even for us, profit is king,” Szaky said in a 2007 interview with CNBC, the cable television news network dedicated to covering capitalism.
But Szaky is also committed to do well by doing good and TerraCycle, the company he founded in 2001 after dropping out of Princeton University, makes money by turning wasted into a mind-boggling array of useful new products.
“I’m hoping to get everyone to zero waste,” Szaky told MNN.
TerraCycle is grinding away at the goal to eliminate the idea of waste by creating national recycling systems for previously non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste.
TerraCycle has found second lives for drink pouches, candy wrappers, yogurt containers, chip bags, energy bar wrappers, toothbrushes and Scotch tape dispensers. The company is about to launch programs to collect and recycle cigarette butts and used disposable diapers.
TerraCycle collects a wide variety of waste from more than 20 million people in more than 20 countries, diverting billions of units of waste and creating more than 1,500 different products available at major retailers ranging from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods Market.
The company collected 22,000 juice pouches in 2007 and 100 million juice pouches in 2011, Szaky said.
TerraCycle recruits individuals and community groups to create what it calls Brigades. The Brigades fill a box with juice pouches or plastic dairy tubs or whatever, download a shipping label and ship it for free to TerraCycle. Each shipment earns a 2 cent donation to a school or charity.
The company has given $5 million to 100,000 schools and charities, Szaky said.
Among the groups benefiting is Elizabeth Guerrero’s K-12 ESL and Gifted classroom in the Blue Ridge School District in New Milford, Penn. The classroom recently launched a Dairy Tub Brigade – an addition to other efforts that so far have raised more than $440 for the class.
Over the last decade or so, TerraCycle has expanded from the initial business of packaging liquid worm poop to use as fertilizer in used soda bottles. But the core principle, Szaky said, is the same: “leveraging garbage.”
But doing that has to be as practical and as profitable as possible, he said.
“People will only choose green if performance and price are the same,” Szaky said.
Collection of dirty disposable diapers to be recycled into items such as plastic park benches presents a special challenge. TerraCycle is testing an air-tight shipper box that it hopes to deploy to day-care centers and similar locations were large volumes of dirty diapers are collected each day.
The benefit could be huge, Szaky said, noting that disposable diapers comprise about 2.5 percent of landfill volume.
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