Tom Szaky is proving that one man’s waste is everyone’s treasure. His company, TerraCycle, Inc. is eliminating the idea of “waste” by creating easy-to-use collection systems and recycling processes that allow people to recycle materials previously considered “non-recyclable.”
Founded in 2001 by Szaky, then a 20-year-old Princeton University freshman, TerraCycle, Inc. began producing organic fertilizer by packaging liquified “worm poop” in used soda bottles.
After only placing 4th in the Princeton Business Plan Contest, Szaky decided to go ahead with his idea anyway and start producing worm casting based fertilizers. He emptied his savings accounts, borrowed money from friends and family and maxed out his credit cards to buy a massive worm poop conversion unit.
In April of 2003, TerraCycle won the coveted grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business Plan Challenge, complete with $1 million of investment money. Unfortunately, the investors wanted TerraCycle to move away from its eco-friendly mission and focus entirely on the plant food. Despite having only $500 in the company bank account, Szaky turned down the money in order to keep using waste products as packaging.
The company got its big break in 2004, selling its little-known worm poop fertilizer to The Home Depot and Walmart. Szaky soon expanded Terracyle’s recycling mission, creating “Brigades”—free waste collection systems in which individuals or organizations collect a specific, unconventional waste stream (such asdrink pouches, cigarette butts, cosmetic packaging, wine corks, or flip flops) and use prepaid shipping labels to send their waste to TerraCycle, which upcycles or recycles the material. For each item returned, TerraCycle donates two-cents towards a charity of the collector’s choice. With help from over 40 million dedicated Brigade participants around the world, TerraCycle has recycled over 2.5 billion pieces of waste and donated $7 million dollars to charities.
In addition, TerraCycle now operates in 24 different countries with some of the world’s leading brands including Kraft Foods, Nestle, and L’Oreal.
We recently visited TerraCycle headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey, and talked to Szaky about starting an innovative eco-business, funding it through startup pitch competitions, and asked him if there’s anything out there that he won’t recycle (spoiler alert: the answer is no.)