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From Worm Waste To A Zero-Waste World, The Vision Of Tom Szaky

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From Worm Waste To A Zero-Waste World, The Vision Of Tom Szaky

Do you know what Tom Szaky thinks of everything you own, eat, wear, poop and drive, from the plastic container that contains your hair product to the pricey phone you tuck into your back pocket to the discount drone you use to wage drunken dogfights with your next-door neighbor?

It’s garbage.

Really. Pick a spot on the space-time continuum, and the material world ultimately becomes junk. If necessity is the mother of invention, this is one inventive mother.

“Garbage is such a good topic because everything in the world, one day, will be owned by the garbage industry,” says Szaky, 35, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a Zen-like startup that specializes in finding the value in processing the most unrecyclable stuff on the planet.

“Everything becomes waste. You name it. Everything,” says Szaky, a Hungarian emigre who lived in a Communist world where environmental concerns were not paramount, but re-using everything to “MacGyver” (his verb) the value out of junk was a way of life.

Cracking The Code For Kicking Butts

Szaky (pronounced “Zack-ee”), was a 19-year-old student at Princeton University when he hatched the concept of TerraCycle, starting off by feeding food waste to worms and then selling the worm excrement as a high-quality fertilizer.

He dropped out of school and embarked on the difficult journey of getting investors to believe in his dreams of a zero-waste planet. By 2006, he was on the cover of Inc. with the headline: “The Coolest Little Startup In America.”

He has a harsh opinion of Big Garbage, particularly trash giant Waste Management, Inc. (NYSE: WM), which is leading the United States’ retreat from recycling because of what Szaky says are surface costs of getting rid of stuff, taking the path least challenging.

"That would be an example of #fakenews. After all, money talks and we have invested $1 billion in recycling; who else has "committed" more to recycling than Waste Management?" responded Toni Beck, vice-president for corporate communications and community relations at Waste Management.

Waste Management has closed a fifth of its recycling facilities since 2014.

Mother Of Invention

The iconoclastic Szaky has partnered with some big companies to boost his business model.

Here are just some cures for the common landfill:

  • Kicked the cigarette waste conundrum: Billions of butts are flicked on the planet’s surface, and one TerraCycle program sets up hundreds of depositories at 26 cities around the country, with TerraCycle scientists figuring out to reuse all the components.
  • Partnered with PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE: PEP) to hold and promote PepsiCo Recycle Rally, a beverage container initiative for K-12 schools. It has given out more than $1 million in prizes since 2010.
  • Hooked up with Procter & Gamble Co (NYSE: PG) to collect 25,000 pounds of plastic waste from European beaches to produce bottles for Head & Shoulders shampoo.

But Wait, There’s More

  • Cut deals with Colgate-Palmolive Company (NYSE: CL) and Shoprite Holdings to build children’s playgrounds across the country made completely from oral care waste such as floss containers and empty toothpaste tubes.
  • Sells its “Zero Waste Box” to the private and public sectors that allows users to recycle almost any type of waste, “from your coffee capsules to complex laboratory waste.” It’s a relative pittance, less than $100, and everything is repurposed.
  • Recycles 97 percent of the recyclables it collects and repurposes countless other products, using discarded juices pouches sewn together to make backpacks, chip bags into shoes and granola wrappers into shower curtains. It distributes products online and through retailers on four continents.
  • Partnered with Unilever plc (ADR) (NYSE: UL) to collect and recycle deodorant containers in Germany and recycle them into kids bicycles, and Staples, Inc. (NASDAQ: SPLS) to distribute “Zero Waste Boxes.”

Global Reach, Modest Profits, Massive Impact

TerraCycle says over 63 million people in 21 countries have raised $15 million for charities around the world. For a privately held company, TerraCycle is pretty transparent. It lists its revenues — $19.3 million last year — on its website, a sprawling place itself that gives the company a counter-culture vibe.

“Our offices around the world are made entirely from upcycled waste, our walls are covered in ever-changing graffiti from local artists, and we thrive on a culture of transparency and high-energy innovation,” the website says.

It has won more than 200 awards for social entrepreneurism, including from the United Nations, Clinton Global Initiative and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was listed among “100 Brilliant Companies,” by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2012.

Szaky’s written three books, most recently “Make Garbage Great: The TerraCycle Family Guide to a Zero Waste Lifestyle” by Harper Design. TerraCycle even has a reality show, “Human Resources” on the Pivot Network.

To paraphrase what Leon Trotsky once said about his opponents, Szaky is content to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

And he loves talking trash.

“Dirty diapers, used tampons, these are the challenges I find most exciting,” he said.

Related Link: Smaller Gizmos Mean Bigger Headaches For E-Recyclers
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Image Credit: Photo provided by and used with expressed permission from TerraCycle.

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