The Waste Recycling Revolution
It all started with worms. When fed organic waste, worm ‘tea’ is produced through their excrement. One man began to bottle this concoction into used soda bottles as a natural plant food, by taking food scraps from the disposal bin at Princeton Dining Services.
That man was Tom Szaky. By the next summer, Tom met his first investor, and TerraCycle was born. As sales of the natural plant food grew, Tom began looking for other ways to reuse products. His company began to take the items that nobody else wanted, cigarette butts, toothbrushes, juice cartons, expired pills and food wrappers, and explore ways of reusing anything they could get their hands on.
“‘We want to be the recycling solution for everything that’s not recyclable today,’ Tom says, ‘But we don’t have all the answers yet.
Juice boxes were made into backpacks, candy wrappers made into coolers.
Tom sorts through an open bin in his 250,000 sq foot warehouse in New Jersey, filled with glue tubes, marker pens, razor blades and tampon applicators. “‘We want to be the recycling solution for everything that’s not recyclable today,’ Tom says, ‘But we don’t have all the answers yet.’
TerraCycle puts out the call and garbage “brigades”, consisting of mostly unpaid volunteers, delivering the waste to his warehouses. Each item would earn you a donation towards the charity or school of your choice.
Companies then began to take notice. For Tom, costs of cleaning post-consumer products and reforming them were starting to be too much. Then in 2008, companies began to contact TerraCycle directly.
Today, of the three billion waste units TerraCycle has received so far in 2010, 96 percent is corporate waste. “‘This is pre-consumer waste,’ Tom explains, meaning corporate surplus. ‘Between one and six per cent of most companies’ annual production is pre-consumer waste.”
“If you don’t want this stuff, don’t buy it and the corporations will change.’
All the shipping and website costs, the donations to charity is covered by the company who’s products are being collected. “It all comes out of the company’s marketing budget,’ says Tom.
The business has been such a success that they have already expanded to six different countries, with plans for eleven more next year. Companies such as Starbucks, Kraft, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Nestlé all contribute to the process with their corporate waste. Tom believes genuinely these companies want to help the environment, “plus, its great PR” he adds. In many cases, the original companies’ logo is still displayed.
Tom sincerely believes the world be a better place if more people adopted the habit of buying as little as possible. With America producing over 30 million tons of plastic waste last year, the responsibility, Tom says, is squarely in the laps of consumers.
‘Consumers can say they are the innocent bystanders, but frankly you are still pulling the trigger. If you don’t want this stuff, don’t buy it and the corporations will change.’
In the meantime, we have TerraCycle, and Tom is banking his company will be around as long as plastics are headed to the landfills.