TerraCycle: Revolutionizing Recycling and Upcycling

TerraCycle is moving on from its recycling of chip and cookie bags into handbags and other products to finding reusable options for two of the hardest products to recycle: used disposable diapers and chewing gum. “It’s a really exciting time for us,” Zakes says. “We’re moving from the easy things to recycle and now really taking our recycling processes to the next level, looking at industrial, hazardous and construction waste.”

The company also is expanding its efforts worldwide from North America and Europe into Australia and New Zealand. “We’re currently operating in 24 countries on four continents,” Zakes says. “Our next launch will be Korea and Japan. For any number of reasons, we are very excited about the potential of these markets. They have big economies and big populations.” TerraCycle currently has eight international offices and does business in more than 20 countries, 15 of those within Europe.

Say No to Garbage

TerraCycle’s philosophy is that there is no such thing as garbage. One child’s juice pouches could become a teenager’s backpack. Its business model is to have companies sponsor collection of used products for which they are known – for example, Sanford paying organizations a certain amount for every used pen they collect and bring to an office supply store – and sending them to another company that “upcycles” them into a whole new useful product.

The major corporations that sponsor TerraCycle collection programs allow consumers to collect any company’s products – even their competitors. “Our partners aren’t just doing this as a brand loyalty sales drive,” Zakes insists. “They are willing to accept packaging and products regardless of brand. That shows they are seeking solutions.” The TerraCycle logo is placed on billions of packages around the world that contain the company’s upcycled products.

TerraCycle’s offices are furnished with products upcycled from what would otherwise have been garbage, such as used doors and soda bottles. It has an experimental retail store in Princeton, N.J., where it sells its recycled products such as circuit board clipboards, drink pouch backpacks and wine cork boards.

CEO and founder Tom Szaky has authored a book about the company, “Revolution in a Bottle,” and the National Geographic cable channel aired four episodes of a reality show about TerraCycle called “Garbage Moguls.” In 2014, Szaky’s new book, “Outsmart Waste,” will hit store shelves, and a new reality television show about TerraCycle will air in fall 2014.

Zakes estimates that at the end of 2013, TerraCycle had diverted nearly 10 million pounds of plastic from landfills. Since the company’s founding in 2001, it has diverted approximately 70,000 tons of material from landfills – totaling roughly 2.6 billion pieces of packaging or products.

Upcycling Team

A team led by Chief Design Junkie Tiffany Threadgould discovers upcycled reuses for the waste the company’s organizations collect. For example, TerraCycle upcycles used United States Postal Service mailbags into products such as smart phone cases, tote bags and coin pouches.

Tents that were not sold because they were not manufactured correctly are upcycled to different products, such as tote or lunch bags or travel kits. TerraCycle works with manufacturers to find uses for their off-spec products and has a warehouse filled with materials waiting to be upcycled.

“Upcycling is taking something and making it more valuable in its next life,” Threadgould says. “Rather than being ground back into a raw material, we find value in the material existing as it is and then transform it into the new product.”

An example of this is using the graphics on chip bags as a design element in a handbag made of those bags. Another is weaving candy wrappers into children’s jewelry and headbands. Gift bows are being made from food packaging waste. This American pop culture use can be appealing to many consumers, especially those in the Asian countries to which TerraCycle is expanding.

Some of TerraCycle’s upcycled products are manufactured by the company at its headquarters in Trenton, N.J., but many are produced by manufacturers

who partner with TerraCycle. Zakes estimates approximately half the company’s products are sold at brick-and-mortar stores and the rest online. If an upcycled product wears out, it can be returned to TerraCycle for recycling in exchange for the number of credits the product originally received that are donated to the donor’s favorite charity.

Plastics Guru

In R&D, TerraCycle has eight people on the material side, three of whom are strictly on the design side, and another five people on the science side. Threadgould’s team also has an expert on plastic polymers. “Everyone on our materials side comes from a science background,” Threadgould says. “Our head of R&D has years of experience, worked with Dow Chemical and is our plastics guru who we go to for anything material-based.”

Enthusiasm runs high among TerraCycle’s 125 employees. “We get so much enthusiasm and people excited to work here,” she says. “We get tons of interns – more than staff, quite often. We work in an office that the interior design has been upcycled. It’s a really hip, fun place like nowhere else.”

Zakes adds a socially conscious note. “The major barrier to entry of any environmental or social product is the assumption from consumers that it either is going to cost way too much or not work all that well,” Zakes says. “TerraCycle is out to prove that wrong. By dispelling that myth, we’re hoping we’re not only creating a bigger opportunity for future TerraCycle products, but by doing this, helping to blaze the path for future companies to get market penetration for their social and environmentally conscious products.”