Greener by Design: Terracycle's Ultimate Solution

Greener by Design: Terracycle's Ultimate Solution

No one could accuse Terracycle's Tom Szaky of thinking small.

"Our goal is to become the ultimate solution to all waste globally," he told attendees at Greener by Design 2009 this morning. "We want to become recycling 2.0."

Despite being possibly the most ambitious goal there is, Szaky has made a significant case for it also being practical.

In the last month, Terracycle has announced partnerships with Frito-Lay and Mars to take wrappers and make new products from them, but those are just the tip of the mountain of waste that Terracycle has tackled in the past six years.

It started with worm poop, but Szaky and his team at Terracycle has grown it into much more than that.

The company now makes a heap of products, from pencil cases and messenger bags made from juice pouches, bird feeders and fertilizer bottles from old soda bottles; rain barrels from discarded wine barrels, planters from yogurt cups, and on and on.

And the company is growing almost as fast as the mountains of waste that we generate every day. Szaky explained that the company is going global, with Terracycle UK opening up in a couple months, a national collection program developed in partnership with Frito-Lay in Brazil, and Terracycle Mexico opening later this year.

In running through the history of Terracycle, Szaky laid out some fundamental challenges facing the green movement. The biggest issue, he said, is that shoppers are simply not willing to spend any more money for a greener product -- even just 1 or 2 percent more is often too much.

Because right now the cheapest way to make soda bottle is to use virgin materials, with higher premiums for recycled-content and compostable products, there are significant hurdles for green products.
Tom Szaky and Joel Makower at Greener by Design 2009 INSERT ALT TEXT HERE
But with the Terracycle model, Szaky said they can accomplish "better, greener and cheaper" -- the perfect combination for shoppers and retailers alike.

For retailers like Wal-Mart, Terracycle products are ideal because they meet a huge demand.

"Big companies are craving green solutions, and there are very few out there compared with the demand," Szaky said. "So if one big company does it, then all the others will come in line;" as examples, Szaky explained that once Wal-mart said yes to Terracycle products, then Target joined on, and others followed suit.

For manufacturers, Terracycle's business model turns a cost into a benefit, and offers huge reputational dividends as well. With Capri Sun drink pouches, a huge waste stream for Kraft, Terracycle took this waste, which was not recyclable pre-Terracycle, and turned it into something better than recyclable.

"[Capri Sun has] been in the program for 2 years," Szaky said, "and it's created the most amazing sales lift for the company -- it's paid for itself many times over." But the benefits go further than just economics: "The big benefit to the brand is not the Capri Sun messenger bag; the primary benefit is that the consumer can be engaged and send it in."
And consumers also love the Terracycle process. The company launched a community-engagement project -- a "juice pouch brigade," in the Capri Sun example -- to get the end users of these products to return them back to the production stream. Szaky said the juice-pouch recycling program is in 20,000 schools around the U.S. right now, and will likely expand to as many as 70,000 schools in the next 12 months. To date, the project has diverted 75 million juice pouches from landfills in the U.S. alone.

One of the big problems facing the environmental movement, Szaky said, is that it's a huge problem, and it's correspondingly hard for a consumer to feel like they're doing something effective.

"One of the big challenges is to create products that people can wear as badges; that's what people are craving," Szaky told the crowd. "People want to be part of creating a solution -- they want to save that one chip bag, that one juice pouch, and so on."

It bears repeating that no one can accuse Szaky and Terracycle of thinking small, and the company has huge plans for the future, in terms of expansion globally, expansions of product lines, and reimagining both the fundamental basis of business and the idea of waste.

"I don't see waste anymore," Szaky said. "I just see cash."

There's a ton that Szaky discussed in his hour-long talk at Greener by Design -- the company's pro-graffiti, anti-drug testing and anti-criminal background check policies, for instance -- that I don't have room to cover. But we'll have plenty more from Terracycle in the coming months; Szaky told the crowd that his company is launching new partnerships on average every two weeks. And we'll have much more from Greener by Design for the rest of the day and into next week.