Tom Szaky is leading a recycling revolution. In a world that favors disposables and throwing things away, Szaky is asking consumers to consider where “away” is (often in the ocean, based on the growing size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). His company, TerraCycle, is working to eliminate waste through recycling the non-recyclables of the world like dirty diapers and empty toothpaste tubes.
Sparkfund: Describe TerraCycle’s business.
Tom Szaky: TerraCycle’s mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. There are multiple ways to accomplish that, including recycling hard-to-recycle items and diagnostic waste (like dirty diapers) and moving away from disposables in favor of durable supply chains.
What makes something non-recyclable is cost. It costs more to collect and process certain items than the results are worth. But recycling is profitable, so while there are technical issues to solve, the main innovation is solving the financial gap. TerraCycle finds stakeholders that care more about certain waste streams and works with them to finance recycling. For example, Colgate might care more about recycling toothpaste tubes than the average company.
Why is recycling important?
We’re in a waste crisis: 25% of the world’s garbage ends up in the ocean and only 2% of waste is recycled. Recycling rates are decreasing, and meanwhile, everything is covered in disposable packaging. It’s a big issue, but there are not a lot of meaningful solutions.
What's a best practice that a small organization could implement tomorrow?
Buy products that do not become waste. You can make it easy for yourself by buying the right things, like mugs instead of disposable coffee cups. Then, for the waste you have left, support your local recycling efforts or think of working with a company like TerraCycle.
What’s one accomplishment at your job you’re most proud of?
A lot. It changes every day. Today, I’d say I’m most proud of our impact reducing ocean plastic.
What’s one professional lesson you’ve learned the hard way?
Early in our history, I was worried about what information we should tell employees. I didn’t want to burden them with the issues of the company. But that can make everything feel like a secret, which is a culture we don’t want at TerraCycle, so we went the other way and tried to be as transparent as possible. Now we have a hyper-transparent culture and there’s been a huge benefit. Every team member gets the same reports I do. I wish I would have learned that lesson sooner, but the best lessons are always learned the hard way.
What’s your morning routine?
I get to work at 5 or 6 a.m. and crank on my to-do list. I start very early so I can be done by 6 p.m. and head home to spend time with my two young kids. I try to avoid staying late and keep my computer off over the weekend.
What helps you focus when you’re stuck?
What gets me unstuck is taking a step back. I try to contemplate why the problem exists to begin with rather than accepting the problem as a fact.
What’s one small thing you do every day to be sustainable?
I wear the same pair of jeans for a whole year. You have to wear a pair of jeans every day for them to get a hole in the legs, so I do one pair a year. That doesn’t mean I only have one pair of jeans in my closet, because I have the other pairs with holes in them, but those are for the weekends.