Trashing The Idea of Waste

Trashing The Idea of Waste

Greener by Design 2009

Since 2001, Terracycle has been changing the perception of what is trash, using worms to make fertilizer and reappropriating food wrappers, pop bottles, vinyl records and, with it's latest program, saw blades, cat food bags and more, to upcycle waste into new products.

Terracycle's founder Tom Szaky spoke with GreenBiz Radio about the thought process behind giving trash a new life and why end-of-life must be considered at the start of every design.

Szaky will be one of the keynote speakers at's Greener by Design conference May 19-20 in San Francisco, and recently published a book, "Revolution in a Bottle."

Jonathan Bardelline: It's been about a year since we last spoke with you for GreenBiz Radio. Could you give me a kind of brief overview, what's been happening at TerraCycle since then? What are some of the big moments from the last year for TerraCycle?

Tom Szaky: Well, a lot has happened, I guess, bottom line. And some of the key pieces are that we've launched -- not just launched but really grew Sponsored Waste, which is the program where big brands from Capri Sun to Oreo to Cliff Bar to Stonyfield, come in and fund us to run national collection programs for their waste streams.

That program, Sponsored Waste, has ballooned. We've gotten a huge number of mega-brands from Frito-Lay to Kashi to Mars and some other really big brands to come on board. It's also grown in scale. Today it's being engaged by over 3 million people in about 20,000 locations, and that's on track to double every six months. In addition to that, we're also now opening it up internationally with potential openings in Brazil, London, Canada, Mexico.   

So that whole system of Sponsored Waste is exploding in an amazing way. And to complement that, our products are growing. Our retail distribution's growing, everything. You know the company will easily double in size this year. And especially in the tough economy, I think that's a pretty cool achievement. On top of all that the Sponsored Waste, which again are these collection programs, are now also being run in retailers.

You can see waste collection systems where you can collect 10 different waste streams in retailers ranging from Petco all the way to Home Depot. And we expect that by the end of 2009 to be in about 10,000 retail locations.   

JB: You mention you now have about 3 million people involved in the collection programs. Is that where you're primarily getting these materials from? Are the companies that are sponsoring them also giving you their waste or their leftovers or things they can't use?   

TS: We get it from both places. I guess what you're referring to is pre-consumer waste versus post-consumer waste? Post-consumer being what the consumers throw out, the used wrapper that sort of thing,  while post-consumer is what is thrown out at factories. And we use both. We take all the pre-consumer waste from our partners, and then we collect the post-consumer waste. And that's what the 3 million people out there are collecting.

And with the program that you mentioned at the specific retailers taking certain types of waste, how do you determine from these which ones to take? Like at Home Depot, I think you're taking paintbrushes, correct?

Yes. Well, we're taking paintbrushes. We're taking plastic bags, potting mix bags. I mean a whole range of products. What we determine is really what are the people who shop at that specific retailer buying and thus interested in potentially collecting? So we reallly let the retail, the shoppers, in effect, drive what we collect at certain retailers. So at OfficeMax when we run the program there, we're going to be collecting very much office based waste.   

JB: And with these do you also have a plan ahead of time what you're going to be doing with them by the time they have enough?

TS: Absolutely.

JB: I was wondering with that because at a place like Home Depot obviously a lot of stuff going on there and just knowing what factors help determine versus what you can do with them versus what kind of supply you're going to have or be able to get.

TS: Yeah, it's a balance. You have to get waste that you can work with and that there's a strong supply on. That's the big balance.   

JB: And with all the materials that you bring in, are you measuring the impact you're having in terms of how many water bottles you're using or how many plastic bags you've collected or kept out of landfills?   

TS: Oh, yeah, yeah, we measure it all, on every single one. I can't give you numbers yet, but the numbers when you do start seeing them will be very substantial. I mean, just on our collection program that you can sign up on our website,, we've diverted probably over 300, 400 million units of waste this year.   

JB: Okay.   

TS: I consider that pretty substantial.   

JB: Going back to having a plan for what you do with materials, in the process of figuring out what you're going to do with the waste you're going to collect and that you're reusing, do you also plan out how to best utilize that to, I guess in a sense, minimize the waste of using waste?

TS: Oh, of course, of course. We want to make sure that we use it all, and so we've come up with solutions for all the waste that we collect. Absolutely.   

JB: Is there anything you can speak of specifically or examples?

TS: Yeah, I mean it's all the products we make. Like for example, chip bags we make into everything from kites to shower curtains to spiral bound notebooks. That's with Frito-Lay or Oreo wrappers into a whole range of different things. And if we can't make it into consumer product, we can make it into certain industrial type product. Bottom line, at the end of the day we have found solutions for absolutely everything out there in the volumes that are out there.

JB: Some of the material you handle obviously has already come to the end of its useful life in one sense or not useful to the original manufacturer anymore and then you give it a new life. When you're designing the new products, does the end of that product's life come into factor where you say, "Well, we're making this out of this waste, but when this becomes waste, what happens to it then?"

TS: No, of course. Every product, every TerraCycle product when you're done with it and it's at the end of its life, if you will, then you can send it back to TerraCycle and then we'll upcycle it again. And you actually get credit for it when you send it into us. So we really try to eliminate and do true cradle-to-cradle manufacturing by giving that choice to our consumers.   

JB: And the credit just goes towards other purchases?

TS: Oh no, it goes into your account and then that credit can be donated to any charity you want.   

JB: To shift gears a little bit, I'd like to just talk about designing in general and your thoughts on designing with the end of life of a product in mind. Obviously, TerraCycle has its own uses for products at the end of their life. Designers are becoming more aware of issues like designing for reuse or recyclability or design for compost. Do you have any general thoughts of what are some of the directions design should be taking in terms of thinking about end of life?   

TS: I think that how you deal with end of life is less important than that you actually deal with end of life and that you actually consider what happens at the end of life of the package. That's the number one most critical piece is to acknowledge that there is an end of life and how you're going to look at it. That end of life can range from the whole thing from recycling to composting to upcycling.

It's less, to me, less important what the end of life is as long as it's something other than throwing it out or incinerating it. And really focus on trying to make sure that there is an end of life. And from a design perspective acknowledging it and then designing around it.   

JB: And to shift gears again a little bit from there. How is the current economic situation affecting TerraCycle or how are you seeing it affect even businesses that you work with?

TS: We're under tough economic times, and we are having to sort of temper our growth a little bit, but for us tempering our growth means doubling in size every year, not necessarily tripling. So we're still expecting very, very massive growth, but we can't hire as freely as we want. We have to be just a little bit more careful than usual because capital is a little bit harder to get than before, and it puts more pressure on the business than we ever had.

So we are affected, but we're not affected in the way I think most companies are affected when they're seeing a major decline in business. You're going to see TerraCycle continue to grow very aggressively. And all I can say is frankly if the economy wasn't as bad, we would probably grow faster than we're going to be growing now, although even what we're doing now is extremely fast.

JB: Is the economic situation making TerraCycle more attractive to other businesses to work with?

TS: I think so. A lot of big companies are still partnering with us in the midst of them doing massive amount of layoffs and major changes.   

JB: Okay. And along with that I guess, what do businesses get out of working with TerraCycle for example, the in-store collection bins at Home Depot or Petco?

TS: I think the big thing they get out -- whether it's the in-store collections or whether it's collecting through consumers is entirely the fact that their packaging doesn't become garbage anymore.  That's the absolute big, big win.   

JB: Again, about the in-store collections. Where do your design ideas come from for what to do with, for instance, saw blades?  Do you have any --

TS: You look at waste, and you say, "Look there's no such thing as waste." And then once you make that assumption then you say, "Well, look, what are the features of the waste that are valuable?" You start thinking through that, and that gets you to the outcome, which is a product. You just have to look at what makes the waste interesting. What are their features? And then frankly from there it's not that hard.   

Then you look at how do those features overlap to products and then you can start to look, turn a saw blade into a clock. Turn an antiperspirant stick into a giant eraser. And I can keep giving you examples all day long.   

JB: Do you have an in-house design team?

TS: Sure, yeah. We do have an in-house design team. We do use outsourced designers as well, but that is a critical piece. I think of design as having people who think about this all day long.