TerraCycle: a Company That Recycles the Unrecyclable
"The most rewarding aspect is being able to do what I set out to do--having a business that has purpose." CEO Tom Szaky teaches us how to recycle virtually everything and live a zero-waste lifestyle
The recycling market is currently in turmoil. According to National Geographic, 91% of all plastic produced doesn't get recycled, and this number was before China decreased their used plastic imports by 99%. Formerly one of the largest markets in the recycling industry and biggest buyers of recyclable waste, China has now banned the import of most plastics and materials used at recycling processors, causing a build-up of recyclable waste in the rest of the world that's headed straight for the landfill. Where do we go from here?
Fortunately, a company called TerraCycle has rethought the entire recycling process and innovates on how we can better live a zero-waste lifestyle. Times like now are why we need to support them the most.
TerraCycle is known for recycling the unrecyclable. They research and execute ways to recycle materials that are typically difficult to recycle, and they partner with brands and consumers to create recycling initiatives for these new processes. They're known for their "closed-loop" recycling: the materials you send in are reused or recycled for companies to buy back their own materials to create new products and packaging. TerraCycle recycles over 97% of all waste they collect, which is very impressive compared to the industry standard.
The free recycling programs are funded by the brands themselves or municipalities, and you can earn points to donate to your favorite causes by recycling through TerraCycle. All you have to do is collect the waste to be recycled and ship it to TerraCycle. Just some of TerraCycle's current partnerships include:
So far, TerraCycle has over 200 million members who have raised over $44 million for charity through their recycling efforts. Not to mention, their partnerships and industrial processes have recycled 7 billion pieces of trash that could've ended up in landfills or in our oceans.
An Interview with Tom Szaky, CEO and Founder of TerraCycle
Tell me about your company and what inspired you to start it
"I got the idea for TerraCycle as a college freshman at Princeton University in 2001, and our original business model was vermi-composting (converting garbage into worm poop), packaging it in used soda bottles, and selling the resulting fertilizer. To find a larger supply of bottles, we created a national collection program, which was the precursor for our current free recycling programs.
While we no longer produce fertilizer, we have moved into finding recycling solutions for some of the world’s toughest garbage problems, proving that everything is technically recyclable and developing solutions for nearly every waste stream you can think of, including drink pouches, used toothbrushes, cigarette butts and even dirty diapers. In short, TerraCycle takes waste that is not recyclable through conventional methods (i.e. your municipality’s curbside recycling program) and turns it into raw material that is then used to make new products.
To put this in perspective, conventional recycling companies are solely concentrated on processing certain waste streams like aluminum or specific types of plastic and paper while TerraCycle has made a name for itself in recycling “the unrecyclable.” Our programs operate nationally in 21 countries and more than 200 million people around the world recycle through us."
What are your personal goals and how do they align with TerraCycle's mission?
"At TerraCycle we specialize in figuring out what motivates people and unlocking that knowledge to incentivize them to partake in sustainable activities. This approach has allowed us to design solutions that work in modern life like creating circular systems that reduce the amount of waste in our landfills and waterways, as well as the demands on our natural resources.
I’ve long said, a consumer's most powerful tool is their wallet, or when people make it a point to support companies and brands who are really tackling the problem of disposability and taking steps to find solutions that is an excellent place to create change. Through our success, TerraCyle has proven that virtually every piece of garbage can be recycled in some way. Whether it’s through upcycling, recycling, reusing, or composting, virtually every piece of trash is potentially salvageable. Sustainability is finally starting to be “cool,” and it’s very exciting."
What are your company's values and missions, and how do you incorporate them into your day-to-day?
"The goal of TerraCycle has always been to eliminate the idea of waste, which we do in three ways (or via three unique business units). First, we develop ways to make things that are non-recyclable nationally recyclable - examples include cigarette butts, dirty diapers and chewing gum. Second, we integrate unique recycled materials into high end products, like turning ocean plastic into shampoo bottles. And third, we create platforms that move disposable products into durable products without sacrificing the economics and convenience that makes disposable products desirable.
The truth is there is no other company like us out there in the world – this is partly because we have a very unique philosophy to a relatively innovative industry: waste."
What inspires you to keep doing what you're doing?
"The most rewarding aspect is being able to do what I set out to do--having a business that has purpose and global impact. I love coming to work. I love engaging with my staff and our partners to try to solve big problems. If you are going to spend most of your waking hours at work and thinking about work, it’s nice to feel good about what you do."
What does TerraCycle's vision of success look like?
"In the past few years or so, the world has really woken up to the issues of waste, ocean plastic, and recycling. People want to do their part, and a majority will report participating in their local program. Problem is, it's not enough, and with China no longer accepting foreign recycling, even less of what people put in their bins actually get recycled.
That's where TerraCycle comes in. TerraCycle works with businesses, brands, cities, and municipalities to work around the limitations of the global recycling system and offer national solutions everyone can access in 21 different countries. Some programs are brand-sponsored and free to consumers and others work to integrate difficult-to-recycle materials in a product people can buy and still others, like our Zero Waste Box program are consumer driven. Success for TerraCycle is when we achieve our mission of eliminating the idea of waste, until then we will continue to develop innovative solutions that help reduce waste around the world."
What accomplishments has your company experienced so far, and what does the future look like for you?
"Recently we announced our latest initiative called Loop at the World Economic Forum. Loop is the first-ever global shopping platform with the objective of shifting from a disposable supply chain to a durable one where manufacturers own their packaging in the long term.
Loop officially launched to the consumer in the 2nd quarter of 2019 in Paris, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington D.C, and Pennsylvania and later expanded early in the 3rd quarter to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. To-date, consumer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and has contributed to our rapid expansion. Also, this year TerraCycle launched the first-ever disposable razor recycling program within the United States, as well as the first cannabis packaging recycling program throughout Canada."
Support TerraCycle's zero-waste movement by joining many of their recycling platforms for free at terracycle.com