Entrepreneur Spotlight: Tom Szaky @ TerraCycle

This month we are featuring a New Jersey local social entrepreneur, Tom Szaky, who “stopped viewing garbage as garbage and instead slowly started to see it as a commodity” by actively collecting “difficult-to-recycle packaging and products and repurposes the material into affordable, innovative products.”

Who is Tom Szaky?

Entrepreneurs take risks, but the ones we admire the most are the businessmen who seek to change the world and everyday lives. We’ve featured several businesses with CEOs that are looking to make a global impact such as One Acre Fund with Andrew Youn and Solidarium with Tiago Dalvi, but it was time to feature a socio-entrepreneur close to home.

Tom Szaky is an entrepreneur that not only created a successful small business in college; he brought worldwide attention to it very quickly! Tom Szaky is the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a company that makes consumer products from waste, and he started it when he was a sophomore in college.

We spoke with Albe Zakes, the man that is Szaky’s right-hand man when it comes to promoting TerraCycle and has been with TerraCycle for 10 years. He started as an unpaid intern and worked his way up to the head of the marketing department.

Zakes is the second longest tenured employee at TerraCycle, and he provided a behind-the scenes glimpse of the passion Szaky has for his company.

Albe Zakes - TerraCycle

“A lot of our ability to get major PR in the early days was around Tom’s story itself. And when a lot of the entrepreneurs of Tom’s generation were moving out to Silicon Valley to start dot-coms, which is a great way to make money really fast, but doesn’t necessarily provide any social value or create any social change, Tom was willing to create a company slowly from the ground up,” says Zakes.

“His off the charts intelligence is perfectly balanced by his funky rock-star look. When Tom walks into a room full of suits, full of executives, full of traditional businessmen, they might be taken aback at first. But the moment he starts opening his mouth, the moment he starts talking about numbers, the moment he starts talking about his business model, they are taken aback by it.

You can see the amount of respect the people we meet have for Tom, that he was willing to do it his way, and risk as much as he risks, and remains passionate about the program.”

TerraCycle Overview

Back in 2001, Tom Szaky, 20-year-old Princeton University freshman, started TerraCycle, Inc. and began producing organic fertilizer by packaging liquefied “worm poop” in used soda bottles. Once the company picked up speed, TerraCycle became one of the fastest-growing green companies in the world.

“I saved, borrowed and begged to raise $20,000 to create a Worm Gin to house my worms and convince my school’s cafeteria service to give me their waste. Four months later I had dropped out [of school] to dedicate myself full time to TerraCycle.”Tom Szaky

TerraCycle has since shifted to collecting waste products, and they work with more than 100 major brands in the U.S. and 22 countries overseas to collect used packaging, unrecyclable plastics, and products such as pens, shoes, and cigarette butts that would end up in landfills. Once collected, the materials are repurposed into new, innovative materials and products which are then sold through major retailers.

Listen to the interview with Albe Zakes of TerraCycle, the company’s marketing efforts, and CEO Tom Szaky’s passion that drives the company.

The Eco-Impact of TerraCycle Worldwide

TerraCycle makes consumer products from pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, which they call upcycling, and by reusing other waste materials. These materials range from unrecyclable plastics to cigarette butts. The company rarely uses new plastics or materials when manufacturing their products. This cuts down on both landfill waste and the need to create new plastics (which don’t biodegrade).

Tom Szaky - TerraCycle

Plant Food
The company originally created fertilizer. It packages the material in reused plastic water bottles and soda bottles to cut down on creating more waste products. The spray bottle tops are rejected from other companies that TerraCycle repurposes for their products.

Upcycle Products
TerraCycle creates products from other waste items such as pencil cases and backpacks made from used Capri Sun drink pouches. They create messenger bags, binders, notebooks, and tote bags.

Recycled Products
Plastic packaging waste is recycled into plastic products including flower pots, plastic lumber, plastic pavers, bike racks, park benches, and garbage and recycling cans.

Collection Programs
TerraCycle created programs to enable people, groups, and organizations to collect specified waste materials in exchange for donations to a selected cause or school. Users can sign up over the internet with shipping and donation costs covered by a sponsoring company related to the specific program. The waste materials are products that are typically non-recyclable.

Innovation Leads to Tomorrow’s Greener Pastures

Tom Szaky has a mission to bring awareness that we need to tackle the issue of consumption worldwide. We must cut down on the amount of waste we create and products that are made of non-recyclable materials. However, cutting down consumption is difficult, so the next best option is to buy used, durable products or find creative ways to reuse products that can’t be recycled in the usual fashion.

Terracycle’s biggest challenge is that they are presenting a totally new concept to their clients – to upcycle the typical trashed items and breathe new life into them. TerraCycle has to convince brands that their non-recyclable waste is an issue.  Several brands have stepped up to the challenge such as Pepsi, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, and more join Szaky’s efforts every year.

Szaky is well on his way to make the world a greener place.

Tell us what you think of Tom Szaky and TerraCycle. If you had an innovative idea that could change the world, would you drop out of school to start it?

I am a digital marketing consultant with a focus on small and mid-sized enterprises. I believe the focus of every business should be on creating a consistent brand identity online and offline.

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