Reduce, reuse, upcycle

The king of garbage Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, came here this month for the first reuse conference to show us how to recycle everything from chip bags to dirty diapers.

Szaky 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Szaky 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Target.
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 this year.
“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.
“Eighty 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 landfill.
In Europe, most is burned for energy,” he said.
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 value.
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.”
SZAKY’S 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.
His friend 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 warm.
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 recalled.
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 laughter.
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 year business.
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 to charity.
“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 great.
Thus backpacks and shoulder bags made out of juice pouches, planters made out of yogurt containers and trash cans out of cookie wrappers were born.
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 down.
“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 shoe.
“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 website.
Most of the major companies have partnered with TerraCycle, and it uses their facilities to produce the products.
At TerraCycle 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 said.
“How is awareness created? We do tremendous amounts of advertising.
The TerraCycle logo appears on packaging.
Fifty 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.
A TerraCycle center will be at every Walmart in the US within three years.
TERRACYCLE 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 products.
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.
“Then it 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 small.”
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 environment.
There are people who do it for the money we donate to charity.
“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,” he said.
“The new Packaging Law is already creating awareness and the infrastructure for the Packaging Law is good for encouraging the use of TerraCycle’s infrastructure.”
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’s model.
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 For more on reuse, go to