Ask a Genius: How Tom Szaky is solving garbage



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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Welcome to the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of interviews with brilliant people. Today we're featuring an interview with Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. The company's mission is to eliminate waste and "recycle the unrecyclable." The company has found ways to recycle more than 100 forms of waste, from cigarette butts to dirty diapers.

Describe the work you do briefly.

The goal of TerraCycle has always been to eliminate the idea of waste, which we do in three ways. 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. There is no other company like us out there in the world.

What problem are you trying to solve?

We are trying to create a sustainable planet. To do that, we have the challenge of making people care. We are trying to solve something — garbage — that goes out of sight, out of mind and is cheap to throw away or burn. We are asking a person to invest their time and money to do something with it that’s significantly better but not nearly as simple.

What led you to tackle this problem & not something else?

Every day you hear people say they want to change the world. When I was in college I’d listen to my professors say, “The purpose of business is profit.” I thought there should be more to it than that. I wanted to embrace the triple bottom line framework, where the company puts people and the planet before profit and where I could really make a difference in the world. After thinking about it and all the issues in the world, my focus fell on the massive problem of garbage and I thought maybe I could try to solve it – and TerraCycle was born.

How does what you do help people?

Through our recycling programs, TerraCycle has engaged over 63 million people in 21 countries to collect and recycle enough waste to raise almost $16 million for charities around the world. Not only are collectors keeping waste out of their local landfills or incinerators, they can earn money for each piece of waste they send to us, which can then be donated to a charity or non-profit of their choice. That’s the short-term. In the long run our work will leave a better planet for future generations.

What was the most difficult thing for TerraCycle to successfully recycle?

When TerraCycle first started developing recycling solutions I thought there must be so many things that are just unsolvable and it turns out there are very few. As far as what was most challenging so far, I would have to say cigarette butts and recovered beach plastic that is now is being used in Procter & Gamble’s Head & Shoulders and Fairy dish soap bottles.

If you had $1 billion, how would you spend it?

I would try to find a way to reduce consumerism. Our population has such a dependence on buying and consuming things and all of that comes with a tremendous cost to the environment.

What's one fact or idea you think more people should know?

Gargantuan ideas like environmental movements are made possible by breaking them down into small digestible steps. Often when approaching large ideas or dealing with big issues, people become overwhelmed and feel there’s not much they can do. So they do nothing and the problem gets worse. And in order to spur a movement that will change the minds and habits of people around the world when it comes to saving the environment, we need people to take action. In my experience, if you make the topic too big, too hairy, too far away, people won’t get excited, and won’t take action. The key is to break it down into small palatable steps, celebrate every win and approach the issue from the positive.

What is the one person, place or thing that helped you get to where you are today?

There are many people along the way who made more of an impact than they probably know, but it was a casual conversation that moved our business down a different path. Seth Goldman, CEO of the Honest Tea Company, and I were having a conversation about how children’s drinks were starting to be sold in pouches that weren’t recyclable. He asked me if I could come up with a solution to keep all those pouches from heading to the landfill. I jumped on this opportunity and that’s how TerraCycle’s “sponsored waste” business was born.

What's one thing you want to accomplish in the next month? Year? Decade?

TerraCycle is in an exciting time. The U.S. subsidiary of TerraCycle recently announced it has been qualified by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for a $25 million Regulation A capital raise. This means any category of investor can invest in our U.S. operating company and be in a position to participate in our future. Once the capital raise is complete we plan to use the proceeds to acquire related companies, increase staff and grow our business.

From a previous genius, Jose Quinonez: How do you balance your optimism against your defeats?

Any great idea is built on a mountain of failures and you’re only as small as your vision. If you have a grand vision and an undeniable passion for an idea, you may feel compelled to drop everything and go for it. As long as you’re always realistic and vigilant, and as long as you are ready to work harder than you ever have before, you can achieve anything. But be ready to fail, and focus on what you can learn from each failure. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Image: TerraCycle