Talking trash with Tom Szaky

Recycling titan Tom Szaky leads a conversation about innovation in sustainability and purpose-driven entrepreneurship live on stage in New York City at The Company Building for the latest installment of Company Conversations.

Earlier this month, Tom Szaky joined us for a live conversation at Company about creating a more sustainable future. Tom Szaky is the CEO and Founder of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of waste. TerraCycle is one of the fastest-growing sustainability companies in the world: on a mission to “eliminate the idea of waste by recycling the non-recyclable,” including dirty diapers and cigarette butts.

However, before finding success, TerraCycle, like most business ventures, struggled to get off the ground. Tom recalls how very early on, “we couldn’t afford packaging.” Then, he had a breakthrough. “We were making products out of waste [worm manure], why not package them in waste?”

At 2am, he started sorting through and collecting all of the used soda bottles on his college campus. “Of course, the police informed us that it is illegal to go through people’s waste. I got a chance to reflect on that, spending a night in jail.”

terracycle office

Today, TerraCycle has won over 200 awards for social entrepreneurship and sustainable business, operates in over 20 countries, has engaged over 80 million people, and has recycled nearly 8 billion units of waste through various innovative platforms.

Despite his dedication (and progress) toward making the planet greener and less wasteful, Tom espouses a refreshing lack of idealism when speaking about the nature of his industry.

“Recycling is not about doing the right thing. It’s about economics and urban mining. Almost anything is technically recyclable. On goods like aluminum, for example, you can make money. But, on a toothbrush, you would lose money. The cost of collection plus the cost of processing is hedged against what you can sell the output for. Usually, it’s not enough.”

“Consider this: the quality of products has decreased. Plastic water bottles are much thinner. Yes, that means less plastic. But, it also makes those bottles less valuable to a recycler. The joke is that if everything was made of gold, you would have 100% recycling.”

Following the continued success of TerraCycle and building from the wisdom he has earned from years of experience in the waste management industry, Tom continues to innovate. Now, with Loop. Launched at Davos in the fall of 2019, Loop is a packaging platform that is helping to end the epidemic of waste that is caused by single-use consumption.

Here’s how Loop works:


Image credit: CNN

Loop has partnered with some of the world’s largest and most popular CPG brands, like Tide, Clorox, Gillette, Pantene, Haagen-Dazs, Colgate, and Tropicana. These major partnerships promise tremendous potential for a company committed to disrupting the status quo and improving the world.

Tom’s experience from a cash-strapped startup founder with a dream to a leader in the sustainability industry compelled us to ask what his advice is for small companies looking to make an impact and find success.

“Make purpose the center. It gives you a much higher rate of success. You won’t see it on the P&L, but purpose opens doors like you’ve never had before. It allows you to retain great people. It gives you earned media. There’s a lot of quantifiable value in purpose, almost like prime equity. Hold on to your purpose and don’t let it go. Then figure out a way to make money.”

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