Tom Szaky

Year founded: 

TerraCycle is transforming the definition of “waste,” by creating easy-to-use collection systems and proprietary recycling processes that allow people to recycle materials that would otherwise go to landfill.

Focus: Environment, Waste Services
Geographic Area of Impact: United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, United Kingdom, Germany
Model: Social Business
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: (2012): over 80,000 tons (2.5 billion units) of waste diverted from landfills or incineration; between 40% – 80% carbon savings depending on the product
Annual Budget: US$ 15 million (2012)
Percentage Earned Revenue: 100%

The Social Problem
Globally an estimated 22.7 trillion pieces of consumer waste are discarded, totalling in excess of 5 million tons of plastic waste annually. Recycling rates remain dismally low in most countries and environmental education is not a priority at most schools. These growing factors are creating a massive challenge both in available resources and the health of our planet and its waterways.

Innovation and Activities
TerraCycle is changing the way people view waste by mobilizing individuals to collect previously unrecyclable waste and incentivizing corporations to sponsor the recycling of the new waste streams. TerraCycle has developed proprietary recycling processes for waste streams as diverse as potato chip bags to cigarette butts to cell phones and engages individuals and large companies to collect waste and pay for recycling costs.

TerraCycle has set up a system that enables individuals, families, schools, or community groups to establish “Brigades” to collect a specific waste stream such as, printer cartridges, Nespresso capsules, and cosmetic packaging. Anyone can participate in a Brigade by signing up for free on the TerraCycle website or joining an already existing collection location. When a certain quantity of waste is collected at a location, the Brigade prints a free shipping label from the Terracycle website in order to mail the waste. For every trash item returned, TerraCycle donates two-cents to a school or non-profit of the collector’s choice. For schools, churches, or community groups are registered as a 501(c)(3), the Brigade serves as a free fundraiser.

To pay for the shipping and recycling costs, different brands pay for different waste streams. TerraCycle provides value for brands like L’Oreal, which sponsors the Cosmetic Brigade, because it offers a free waste collection system and process for recycling the company’s packaging. Although most companies invest significant resources to design packaging, almost no resources are spent to find ways to deal with packaging waste. The traditional challenge in recycling is that waste must be sorted in order to be recycled – TerraCycle overcomes this problem because the Brigade system sorts all waste before it arrives at TerraCycle’s recycling facility. TerraCycle is offering brands a free national waste collection system and helping major companies like Nestle, Kraft Foods, L’Oreal and PepsiCo to take responsibility over the end life of their packaging for the first time. While packaging taxes and Extended Producer Responsibility laws are slow to come to fruition, TerraCycle already has companies paying for the collection of their used packaging and products. TerraCycle operates in 22 countries, minimizing the global threats of landfill and incineration on humans and the environment.

The Entrepreneur
Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a worldwide leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, from used chip bags to used cigarette butts. TerraCycle, on a yearly basis and across 23 countries, collects and repurposes billions of pieces of waste, creating millions of dollars of donations for schools and charities in the process. Tom is the author of two books, “Revolution in a Bottle” published April 2009 by Portfolio and “Outsmart Waste” published January 2014 by Berrett-Koehler. Tom created, produced and stars in a new reality TV show, “Human Resources” currently airing on on Pivot TV. Tom and TerraCycle have 100s of social, environmental and business awards from organizations such as the United Nations, World Economic Forum and the Environmental Protection Agency.