TerraCycle Inc. is not taking newspapers or cans – those can be handled by conventional recycling streams. CEO and Founder Tom Szaky is talking about those items recycling systems don’t handle – such as juice boxes, pens, computer mice, chip bags, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes.
“TerraCycle’s purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste,” the company says.
“We have 50,000 collecting organizations – schools, charities, retail locations and even individual consumers – that run collection programs for various waste streams in their stores and locations,” declares CEO Szaky, who dropped our of Princeton University to start TerraCycle when he was 20 years old. Even big-box stores participate – in Mexico, every Walmart is collecting toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, a program sponsored by Colgate.
“An example is Staples in Sweden, with BIC running an in-store collection program,” Szaky continues. “BIC says for every 10 pens, you get 20 percent off your next big purchase.” The brands create additional promotions for its in-store collection systems.
For office supply stores, besides pens, TerraCycle has collection programs for cellophane tape or glue containers, computer keyboards and mice. Retailers can put out a collection box and encourage customers to fill it. Shipping the filled box to TerraCycle is paid for by a collection program’s sponsor, and two cents is donated by the sponsor to a charity of the store or collector’s choice for each recycled item.
“Any store from major chains to independent stores can sign up today in 19 markets online,” Szaky explains. “At two cents for each juice box, we give away $3 million to $4 million in these donations just in the U.S. alone. It does get pretty good.”
So what does TerraCycle do with the recycled items it receives? That is the exciting part. “We have a team of scientists and designers who look to manipulate waste streams into new raw materials and products,” Szaky says. “We make a backpack out of juice pouches.” That process preserves the products’ logos and is termed “upcycling.” Some upcycled products include pencil cases and shower curtains. Other products can be melted down for use in hardier applications, such as railroad ties.
“We’re driven by the waste coming in, and then we figure out what to do with it,” Szaky emphasizes. “That’s how the process is defined for us.” So instead of searching for recycled products to make a pencil case out of, TerraCycle’s scientists and designers look at the waste stream first and investigate what products could be made from it. The products designed by TerraCycle are produced by various licensed manufacturers.
TerraCycle has opened its first retail store in Princeton, N.J, a 700-square-foot space selling TerraCycle’s and others’ recycled products or products and art made from waste materials.
“The store in New Jersey is just an experiment,” Szaky concedes. “We’re playing with coming up with our own retail store like a Disney store. We continue to experiment. It’s more like a boutique; it just showcases what we do. We’re still struggling with it, to be very fair. As we take it more seriously, we may start a franchising model. We’re still playing with it – it’s a very young business unit.”
The Princeton store is not its only retail foray. In spring 2010, Walmart stores nationwide introduced a co-display called the TerraCycle Hot Spot that paired familiar products like drink pouches, potato chips and cookies with TerraCycle’s recycled and upcycled products made from waste. TerraCycle also set up its first pop-up shop for two months in the Port Authority terminal in New York City. The new shop displayed TerraCycle’s upcycled products and included bins for waste to be deposited for upcycling and recycling.
Target hosted a retail display of TerraCycle’s clocks, coasters and picture frames made from either vinyl records or circuit boards, and Petco has started selling TerraCycle’s pet products, such as stain and odor removers. The company got its start using worms to eat organic waste and produce castings that could be used as fertilizer. TerraCycle has a line of fertilizers and pet products sold in reused soda pop bottles.
Szaky has authored a book about the company, “Revolution in a Bottle,” and the National Geographic cable channel has aired four episodes of a reality show about TerraCycle called “Garbage Moguls.” So awareness of TerraCycle in many cases is acquired free from publicity about the company and from its brand partners.
“The TerraCycle logo is on 20 billion packages around the world,” Szaky calculates. He estimates TerraCycle is receiving the equivalent of $50 million in advertising when the company’s brand partners integrate its message into their advertising.
“We have a huge publicity engine – TerraCycle is written about around 15 times a day,” he maintains. Szaky also writes for magazines, newspapers and blogs, and TerraCycle has its own podcast, Facebook page and a Facebook game called “Trash Tycoon.”
This publicity also helps with recruiting. TerraCycle has recruited its 100 employees at its eight offices around the world from 19 countries. “We look at people who believe,” Szaky stresses. “What attracts them is TerraCycle’s mission and culture. What we look for are people who we feel would fit and grow that vision and value.”
What are TerraCycle’s plans for the future? “We hope to basically make all non-recyclable waste recyclable,” Szaky resolves. By mid-September 2010, TerraCycle’s drink pouch brigade had successfully diverted more than 50 million drink pouches to be recycled and upcycled, and donated more than $1 million to schools, charities and nonprofit organizations. A year later, those numbers had doubled.
What about those who say that TerraCycle’s efforts handle only a fraction of the massive waste created around the globe, and essentially provide only an ecological halo for massive corporations? “We have 25 million consumers collecting waste packaging and products in our system, and every day, it needs to grow a little bit,” Szaky insists. “Over time, our system will be large enough to handle large percentages of waste streams that once went to landfill, but it just takes time to build the collection programs large enough.”