For Tom Szaky, the world is divided into items that can be recycled and items
that no one has yet found a way to reuse or recycle. He is determined to find
creative ways to reuse all garbage – energy bar wrappers, juice bags, yogurt
containers and even dirty diapers.
“A landfill is just a poorly managed
warehouse,” Szaky, CEO of US-based TerraCycle, remarked recently to explain his
philosophy of reusing garbage in innovative ways to create products and reduce
the amount of raw materials which are used up.
In less than a decade, he
has transformed the idea of what garbage is and commercialized it in ways that
no one else has ever done.
Szaky was the keynote speaker at the first
Reuse conference hosted by the Pardess Hanna-Karkur Local Council earlier this
month. It was the first in a series on practical ecology at the Theatrical Arts
Center in Pardess Hanna.
Szaky and his company specialize in transforming
garbage destined for landfills into new products, like backpacks made out of
Capri juice packs, planters made out of Danone yogurt cups and many more items,
which are now carried by major US retailers like Walmart and
TerraCycle has expanded its operations into 13 countries and, six
months ago, TerraCycle came here. It takes a few years to build up a critical
mass to implement its model, but Szaky was enthusiastic about his company’s
entry into the local market – especially as the Packaging Law goes into effect
“There’s no garbage in nature.
Garbage is a man-made
idea and it is only 50 or 60 years old,” he said.
“There are two big
drivers of garbage: Consumption (we buy way more than we need), and complex
materials (plastic, Styrofoam),” he said during a dynamic and polished
presentation outlining his modest roots in wormdropping fertilizer to the
TerraCycle model of today which relies on people to sort and send their garbage
back to the company.
“The world is willing to pay to get rid of garbage.
It’s the only commodity like that.”
There are two types of garbage, Szaky
explained, recyclable and non-recyclable.
A pen, a toothbrush or a dirty
diaper are examples of traditionally nonrecyclable products.
percent of products are not recyclable. What is done with them is correlated to
how much land is available.
In the US, most of it goes to
In Europe, most is burned for energy,” he
According to Szaky’s viewpoint on garbage, objects have two values:
their content and their form. A plastic bottle has the plastic it is made out of
and the form in which it was created.
“There are a number of solutions
for garbage: Putting it in a landfill is the worst, since it has no positive
Neither the content nor the form is utilized. If you burn it, then
you use the caloric value. If you recycle it, then you get the value of the
plastic. But if you reuse it, then you get its full value.”
JOURNEY to garbage began nine years ago, when he was a freshman at Princeton.
Originally from Canada, he went back to visit a friend during break and
discovered he was trying to grow some plants in his basement.
had discovered that worm droppings made great fertilizer.
“I thought to
myself, what a great business – how to take garbage and make it into
fertilizer,” Szaky told the spellbound crowd.
Returning to Princeton, he
contacted the university administration to get massive amounts of organic
material to feed his worms.
“We rotated the organic material on a
conveyor belt and added air. Within 24 hours, the organic material got
The concept relies on the philosophy that no animal likes to sit in
its own poo. Worms went toward the middle away from their excrement. We timed
the conveyor belt to go at the rate of the worms – an inch every five hours,” he
Now Szaky was in the organic fertilizer business, but with one
problem – no one would invest. He dropped out of school to focus on the
business. Without investors, he needed to keep the overhead as low as possible.
Therefore, he hit on the idea of packaging the liquid fertilizer in used soda
bottles with used spray tops.
“Every single aspect of the package is
garbage except the label. We even got a license from Coca-Cola and Pepsi to
package sh*t in their bottles and sell it,” he said to a roar of
So now, he had a product that was cheaper than any other
fertilizer on the market.
“So what did I do? I tried to sell it to
Walmart – the biggest retailer in the world. They ordered 100,000 bottles in
four weeks. I said no problem, left and got all my friends to help. We made
delivery on time. As a result, we got a factory. Then every other retailer
quickly signed on,” Szaky said.
Four years later, it’s a $4 million a
SO HOW did Szaky get from worm droppings to becoming the
king of garbage? To package his fertilizer in used soda bottles, he needed a lot
of them. So he and his company set up a bottle brigade where ordinary people
could sign up on its website, fill up a box with bottles and TerraCycle would
pay for shipping and give a donation of a few cents for every bottle collected
“However, the cost was a million dollars a year,” he said.
“So I approached Cliff, Danone and Honest Tea and asked them: Would you be
interested in sponsoring our bottle brigade? Instead of sponsoring our brigade,
they said, ‘We have a problem – we make yogurt containers, juice pouches and
energy bar wrappers that are not recyclable.
Can you figure out a way to
do something with them?’” According to Szaky, a juice pouch costs half a gram of
carbon to move to a landfill.
Burning it for energy releases 6.3 grams of
carbon; if you recycle it, it saves twice as much energy, and if you upcycle it
(make it into something better), the energy savings are 10 times as
Thus backpacks and shoulder bags made out of juice pouches,
planters made out of yogurt containers and trash cans out of cookie wrappers
The TerraCycle system relies on one key element: sorting the
garbage into similar materials.
“The problem with garbage is that it’s
all mixed together. What if you could separate it into its components? There are
300 different types of garbage.
We can make a fence or bricks out of
juice wrappers. We can make a trash can out of cookie wrappers by melting them
“Separation is critical to maximize value. Cookie, candy, chip
wrappers are all different polymers. There are three categories of garbage:
flexible waste (which we can upcycle), rigid waste (we can put something in it)
and complex waste (which consists of multiple polymers – we can shred and
separate every polymer),” Szaky explained.
“So far, TerraCycle has put 30
million plants in old yogurt cups.
There is a TerraCycle Cliff bar
“One billion pieces of waste are collected every two months. The
real problem is how to collect just toothbrushes or just pens? What to do with
it once it’s been collected is simple.”
His solution – enlist individuals
and groups to collect specific items and send them in. During the first year of
operations in a country, only a few thousand sign up. The next year, more and
more. Now, there are more than 18 million people collecting all over the world.
The company displays a counter of how many people are collecting, how many items
have been collected, products made and money given to charity on the top of its
Most of the major companies have partnered with TerraCycle, and
it uses their facilities to produce the products.
headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey, scientists and design teams figure out how
to reuse or take apart every type of product.
The concept has taken hold
so well that advertisers from the UK to Brazil have begun using the positive
value of TerraCycling to market their products.
“The point is to create
the infrastructure for non-recyclables on the scale of recycling. Today, we
collect 2 percent of juice pouches a year – one million every two days,” Szaky
“How is awareness created? We do tremendous amounts of
The TerraCycle logo appears on packaging.
billion packages per year will have the logo and how you can upcycle it by the
end of 2011.”
In addition, it is going to launch a Facebook game soon and
it already has a TV show on the National Geographic Channel.
center will be at every Walmart in the US within three years.
MAKES money by being paid to collect and then sell the garbage as raw material.
The companies are willing to do so, because they save money using the garbage
instead of more new raw materials, Szaky explained. There are also royalty fees
for use of the logo.
One of the issues that truly environmental companies
need to take into account is the total energy cost to produce their products. If
more energy is used to make the product than the product saves, it has a
negative net environmental value.
Szaky said TerraCycle calculates its
energy costs in terms of carbon. It compares the amount of carbon released or
used to create a product from scratch to the cost of creating one of its
Even with the shipping costs, “it still ends up being less
carbon than making a product from scratch,” he said.
And now, TerraCycle
has entered the Israeli market.
Szaky explained how his company sets up a
market in a new country.
“We’ve been in Israel for six months and we’re
speaking with all the major brands. By September, we hope to start collecting.
The way it usually works, the first month we collect nothing, the second month,
still nothing, and by the third month, a few thousand items.
takes off. We store the garbage in a warehouse until we get a critical mass. The
first year, we collect one million pieces of waste. The second year, a few
million and then we start making products. Day one is always very
He said 50% of the collection points are at schools from
kindergartens to universities.
“There are a wide-range of personalities
who collect. There are green crazies on the Left who do it for the
There are people who do it for the money we donate to
“The easier the system is, the better.
We always offer
prepaid shipping labels. Here, the Internet is everywhere, so we will use that.
In countries without widespread Internet penetration, we set up phone support,”
“The new Packaging Law is already creating awareness and the
infrastructure for the Packaging Law is good for encouraging the use of
TerraCycle never uses the public
infrastructure, it always has its own private infrastructure, he added. But the
Packaging Law will mandate sorting garbage, which is useful for encouraging
TerraCycle Israel representative Moran Twena said it
had presented the idea to Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and his
team “and they liked it very much. We talked about collaborating and we passed
them certain life-cycle analyses. It turns out that there is even a carbon
saving if you ship the collected items abroad to be made into products and then
bring them back rather than using virgin materials.”
For now, TerraCycle
is intent on setting up its collection networks here and will only discuss with
the brand name manufacturers the use of their factories to produce products
after a critical mass has been reached, she said.
So perhaps next year,
or the year after, the newest fashion items will be Bamba bags, or energy bar
sneakers or another of the upcycled TerraCycle products.
TerraCycle is on
the Internet at www.TerraCycle.net. For more on reuse, go to