TerraCycle wants to recycle everything in your life

Good News Notes:

Have you ever felt guilty about tossing your old Teva sandals, or Colgate toothbrush, or Etch A Sketch into the trash, where they will clog up a landfill for hundreds of years? I have good news for you. All of those items—and many more—are now recyclable thanks to TerraCycle, a company that can recycle just about anything, especially items that can’t be processed by municipal facilities.

When the company launched in 2001, eliminating waste wasn’t something the average consumer cared about, but two decades later, environmentalism has gone mainstream, and that’s been good for TerraCycle’s business. Over the past five years, TerraCycle has grown explosively thanks to partnerships with brands that pay the company to collect and recycle customers’ old products. Today, more than 500 brands have signed up, a tenfold increase from 2016. In 2020, TerraCycle generated upward of $50 million in revenue across 20 countries and grew its staff by 33% to 380 employees globally.

TerraCycle’s remarkable growth tells a larger story about the progress the world is making toward a circular economy–a more sustainable system in which companies stop extracting raw materials from the earth and instead recycle products that already exist. While brands and consumers are eager to keep things out of landfill, there are still big challenges ahead in the war on waste. Who should bear the cost of recycling? And what will it really take to recycle a complex object, like a shoe or an Etch a Sketch, back into its original form?


Tom Szaky launched TerraCycle as a 19-year-old Princeton student. The company began as a humble side hustle: transforming food waste into high-quality fertilizer with the help of worms. In college, he emptied his bank account to build a “worm poop conversion unit” and spent his free time shoveling decomposing food from Princeton’s cafeterias. Two years later, he dropped out to pursue the business full-time, selling the fertilizer he created to Home Depot and Walmart.

Spending every waking hour of his twenties thinking about waste helped Szaky grasp the full extent of the global problem—long before many Americans had woken up to the crisis. He realized that food is just the tip of the iceberg: The real—and trickier—issue is plastic, a cheap, versatile material that companies use in everything from food wrappers to furniture. Since plastic does not biodegrade, it ends up in landfills and oceans, where it breaks into tiny fragments and enters the food chain.

Curbside recycling programs launched in the 1970s, but they have always been limited in the plastic products they accept; most only collect simple objects made from a single form of plastic, like takeout containers. Everything else ends up in the landfill because it’s made from multiple materials that are complex and labor-intensive to separate. A high chair, for instance, uses metal bolts and screws to connect different plastic pieces together.

As Szaky looked into the problem, he discovered that it is technically possible to recycle any of these objects. The problem is that recycling infrastructure is not set up to tackle this. Cities pay waste management companies to pick up and recycle materials, which they then sell on the commodities market. If a product is too expensive to break down, recyclers won’t make a profit on it. “We perceive that recycling companies are out there recycling whatever they can recycle out of a moral obligation,” he says. “The reality is that recycling companies are for-profit enterprises and they are only going to process what they can recycle at a profit. If an object costs more to collect and recycle than the ensuing materials are worth, they won’t do it.”

So Szaky decided he needed to create a new business model for recycling. He would build the infrastructure to recycle all kinds of objects and ask companies making these products to bear the cost of recycling them. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is there a stakeholder, like a manufacturer or a retailer or a consumer or someone who is willing to cover what it really costs to collect it and process it?’” he says. “With this business philosophy, we can unlock the ability to recycle just about everything.”


The idea of asking companies or individuals to pay to recycle their own waste seemed crazy two decades ago. But Szaky has observed how people around the world have begun to realize that waste has real costs.

This awareness reached a tipping point in 2018, when a video of a turtle with a straw up its nose went viral, prompting consumers to call for cities to ban straws and other single-use plastics. The following year, National Geographic devoted an issue of the magazine to the problem of plastic waste which circulated widely; brands like Everlane and Adidas began swapping out new plastic for recycled plastic in their products; and new research emerged about how microscopic pieces of plastic end up in our food and water, damaging our bodies….”

View the whole story here: https://www.fastcompany.com/90622861/meet-tom-szaky-the-man-on-a-mission-to-recycle-everything-in-your-life

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