Solving Problems Cassie Hodges  | September 1, 2017

The Small Business that’s on a Mission to Eliminate the Idea of Waste

This month, we’re introducing some of America’s most inspiring entrepreneurs by interviewing all 18 finalists for this year’s Dream Big Small Business Awards. The awards program honors the achievements of some of our nation’s most remarkable small business owners and celebrates their contributions to the American economy. We’ll be spotlighting a different finalist every day between now and the Small Business Summit 2017, where the winners will be announced (register to attend here).

The company: TerraCycle

Who’s in charge: Tom Szaky

Where are they: Trenton, New Jersey

What they do: TerraCycle is an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste. Our mission is to eliminate the idea of waste. We want everyone to understand that there is no waste–there is value in materials that are thrown away every day.

Q: How did your company get started?

Q:  What inspired the creation of your business? What problem does it help to solve?

I felt like there were a lot of materials that were being thrown away that actually had use. It’s just that people weren’t thinking of them in that way. So, I decided that I could help “eliminate the idea of waste” which became our mission.

There are three steps to eliminate the idea of waste:

1) Make the non-recyclable recyclable. Only a few waste streams are actually recycled, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be. It just means it’s not economical at the municipal level to do so. So, we’ve created programs in 21 countries that allow people to recycle what they can’t do curbside.

2) Integrate recycled materials. We do this in several ways, the most recently visible being our announcement with Procter & Gamble to use recovered and recycled beach plastic in Head & Shoulders bottles. With the materials we collect daily such as toothpaste tubes and cosmetics, they are melted and able to be used in new products, reducing the need for virgin plastic.

3) Make systems that focus on durability, refillability and no waste. The third way to help eliminate the idea of waste is to help people think differently about the ownership of the things they use. So, instead of buying everything they use to finish and throw away or recycle, they can use a durable container and refill instead.

Q3:  What barriers have you faced while building your company? How did you overcome them?

We are constantly inventing new business models to solve waste and by doing that, we’ve changed the direction of the company over the years to meet demands. Early on, we were doing some manufacturing and the end product was the “star.” I wanted to make the input, the garbage, the star so that’s what we did and we have had success with that.

There are constantly new opportunities that present themselves whether they come from voids we see in the marketplace or someone approaches us for a solution. Our teams, including our scientists are always working to solve for new waste streams.

Q: What is your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?

It is quite a feeling when an idea you had actually turns into a business. I have to say that it makes me really proud when I see our logo on billions of packages around the world. Especially when I am traveling in “random” places in the world and pick up a package and there it is. It is very rewarding and very cool.

Q: Tell us about your company’s role in the community. How do you use your business to serve as a community leader?

Our business model is very community-based all over the world. Not only are people choosing to keep garbage out of their local landfills or incinerators at a tune of 5 million kilograms of waste diverted each week, but collectors in our free recycling program are rewarded with points that they can turn into cash to donate to a school or charity of their choice. So, every day, we are making an impact in communities.

In addition, we are the largest solution to ocean plastic in the world through our collection programs to recycle beach plastic. Previously, there was no option but to throw it away because it was deemed unrecyclable or unsalvageable, but we have changed that.

Our headquarters office is in an inner city–Trenton, New Jersey.  By our own preference, the building is covered with graffiti art and is constantly changing. Along with a prominent artist, we host a graffiti and hip hop festival each summer and during the year artists are able to paint on our exterior walls. We are a stop on a Trenton art tour and we are working with the mayor to develop some additional programs.

Q: What does it mean to not only have created your own job, but to also create jobs for others? 

It is incredibly meaningful. It’s one thing when you are starting out and there is just the excitement of doing it and people are along for the ride. As the company grows and there are more and more employees, you do feel a responsibility, but there is also excitement as you are all in it together. It is very rewarding when current employees are as excited as I am about what we are doing and potential employees want to work for us because of what we are doing, not just to earn a check.

If selected as the winner of the Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award, how will you invest the $25,000 grand prize?

We will invest it in developing a national platform to implement durable refillable products so that we can eliminate the idea of disposable packaging. So much packaging is wasted either because the product inside has limited use, or it is meant to be thrown away when the consumer is finished with it. The consumer owns the product and packaging he/she has purchased and when done, disposes of it. We want to introduce a platform where a manufacturer creates a durable container that the consumer “borrows.” When it is empty, the manufacturer will refill it instead of forcing it to become garbage.

How did you decide to participate in the Dream Big Small Business of the Year Awards program? And, what does it mean to you to be a finalist in this year’s program?

We are proud of what we do and our employees, recycling partners and collectors all work hard to make our business successful. The awards program seemed a perfect way to be recognized for what we do, but also to reinforce to everyone who chooses to work with us in some way that they are partnering with one of the best small businesses in the country.

Honestly, it is a thrill to be named a finalist. It has created a buzz and energy among our offices, in our community, with our business partners and with thousands of our collectors.


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