In our latest episode of NothingWasted!, we chat with Tom Szaky, Founder & CEO of TerraCycle (and a Waste360 40 Under 40 award-winner in 2019!). We spoke with Szaky about the possibilities of reuse, the power of multi-stakeholder collaboration, TerraCycle’s dream to one day be “the Google of garbage,” and more.
TerraCycle is a social enterprise focused on “Eliminating the Idea of Waste.” The organization collects typically non-recyclable items through its recycling platforms, and leading companies work with them to use those hard-to-recycle materials in new products. TerraCycle’s newest platform, Loop, aims to “change the way the world shops with favorite brands in refillable packaging offered with convenience and style.”
Here’s a sneak peek into the discussion:
Waste360: Can you set the stage about TerraCycle and how it has evolved over the years?
Szaky: We’ve been building TerraCycle now for 20 years, and it’s amazing to think that it’s been so long. But we’ve luckily enjoyed straight growth for all those years, and today we operate in 22 countries around the world—trying to help move from linear to circular systems. So, pragmatically, we focus on how to collect and recycle things that are not locally recyclable; how do we help integrate waste back into products and help producers make products from waste. Most recently, we launched Loop—which is all about shifting from disposable to reusable platforms, already live in six countries. And we even have things coming out like waste diagnostics…so we’re really trying to eliminate or elevate the idea of waste as much as possible.
Waste360: One of the things I love about watching you and your progression over the years is that you’ve never lost your optimism—and a lot of people do when they’re in this system. How do you stay optimistic, and what keeps you positive these days?
Szaky: It’s a very fair question because we are living through environmental crises after crises, and we’re putting so much pressure on our planet. Who knows if we’re already past that sort of point of no return—but one thing that makes me optimistic is that humanity is at its best when it’s under pressure. And the greatest innovations come out of moments of struggle. And, what else would we spend our time doing other than fighting for, you know, things that help the world be better. All that gives me hope, and it gives me hope that people are really waking up to this issue.
Waste360: You’ve probably seen even more response to the work you’re doing since Covid.
Szaky: During Covid, we more than doubled in size if you look at employee count and revenue. And I think a part of that is Covid hasn’t been great for the waste industry. But if you look at what’s happened…first we [as a society] are consuming way more disposable goods; buying PPE that we’re throwing away…and more garbage is coming to us. And in many cases some recycling centers paused on accepting recycling during chunks of Covid. So we also felt like there were fewer solutions available. And that environmental movement kept focusing for people, so the consumer sentiment has gone up. That is one of the things that has catalyzed the exponential growth we’ve seen over the past two years.
Waste360: Tell us about Loop and where it stands now versus where you’d like it to go.
Szaky: We asked ourselves the question, “How could we go further?” And the answer we landed on was tackling the problem of disposability. Not necessarily single-use but objects being intended for one lifecycle. As we thought about that, we felt like the answer was reuse, but we went on a big journey to find out why the reuse movement hasn’t scaled—and a big part that we noticed is convenience. We think convenience is the most important thing in reuse by far.
Even in America, there are big reuse systems at play now—[things like] propane tanks and beer kegs. But, by the way, who is buying those in the name of sustainability? It’s probably not crossing anyone’s mind when they are having a BBQ. But when they’re both empty, you can’t take the propane tank back to a beer store and you can’t take the keg back to, say, a Home Depot. And that’s very difficult if you’re going to scale. So, Loop’s goal overall is to be a platform for reuse where any brand can create a reusable version of their product—whether it be Tide or Haagen-Dazs—and retailers can make those available to their customers. You know, buy prefilled product in the store and then drop it off at any participating store to get your refunds back. We, effectively, at Loop—beyond being the system stewards—are the waste management function of reuse.