Tom Szaky of Terracycle on reuse's 'cool factor'

Tom Szaky and recycled objects
GreenBiz Collage
Tom Szaky (left).

This article was adapted from the newsletter, Circular Weekly. Subscribe here.

Every emerging industry needs champions. In recent months, I’ve been conducting a series of interviews with circular economy leaders — the advisors to our Circularity 19 conference — who are driving the transition from linear to circular.

Last week marked the launch of Loop’s first market, in the Paris area. As you likely recall, Loop heralds a revival of the "milkman model" where big brands deliver products in reusable packaging. I caught up with Tom Szaky, charismatic and candid CEO of Loop’s parent company TerraCycle, recently to talk about the project and emerging circular market. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Lauren Phipps: What are you excited about right now?

Tom Szaky: I'm really hopeful about what's happening in this entire space, especially with consumer product companies, around reuse and innovative recycling. We’re getting our hands around a problem that seems almost unsolvable: the growing waste crisis. And yes, it is growing.

Phipps: So you must be talking about your launch?

Szaky: I am in part, absolutely. Our new platform, Loop, launched May 14 in Paris and launches May 21 in New York. But well beyond Loop, there are some really interesting companies experimenting with this idea of how we move away from disposability to durability or reuse. You've got great companies like Plaine ProductsFresh Bowl and other fantastic startups out there. It's not just one, but a whole ecosystem of companies being born and off to the races.

Phipps: What is the biggest obstacle you see in advancing Loop and the work of TerraCycle broadly?

Szaky: The challenge of many reuse models is that they put reuse on a pedestal, but sacrifice the three things consumers care about: convenience; affordability and "the shiny new object," or having the new cool thing. You’ll notice that none of those are sustainability. 

We need to accept consumers for what they are and try to create reuse models that play into those behaviors. Changing foundational behavior is really hard. I think that will bring through the breakthrough change that is needed to divorce ourselves from using things once.

Phipps: What's the next product you hope to bring to market?

Szaky: By being in a durable system, we get your packages or products back. This means we have a relationship not just with generic waste, but your actual waste. There is a huge amount of opportunity to leverage that.

The simplest example of today is when you shop at an online retailer, you can go in and see your entire order history, from what you bought day one to what you bought yesterday. So, you could log in and ask yourself, "Do I have salt at home?" and we would tell you, "Yeah, you have two bottles of salt."

But it can get much more profound all the way down to diagnostic capabilities on products. We’ve created a side division that's very small now, and hope to deploy in about two years' time with the thesis that there are certain waste streams that carry back with them after-use diagnosable samples. The urine in your kitty litter, the used motor oil in your car, all the way to blood on a fem-care product or fecal matter in a diaper to saliva on a toothbrush. It's sort of like 23andMe meets your dirty diaper. Imagine really exploring that relationship, where it could go and how cool it could be.  

Can’t get enough Szaky? Me neither. Lucky for both of us, he’s joining us at Circularity 19 next month — June 18-20 in Minneapolis — to share early insights on the Loop launch and reusability at scale. Our early-bird rate ends today, so register now and save up to 35 percent.

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