Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in collecting and repurposing complex waste streams. Tom and his organization have received hundreds of social, environmental and business awards and recognition from various organizations, including the United Nations, Fortune Magazine, World Economic Forum, Schwab Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He is also the author of four books, Revolution in a Bottle (2009), Outsmart Waste (2014), Make Garbage Great (2015) and The Future of Packaging (2018). Tom has created, produced and starred in TerraCycle’s reality show, ‘Human Resources’, which has aired on Pivot and is syndicated in more than 20 foreign markets on Amazon and iTunes.
Tom was born in Hungary, an only child to his parents working as doctors. When Tom was four, he and his family were forced to leave their home in Hungary after the Chernobyl disaster. In 1987, Tom immigrated to Canada, where he grew up in Toronto.
Tom says, “Growing up in Canada and around the strong conservationist movement sparked my interest in environmentalism.” He became captivated with the concept of recycling after seeing the ‘astounding’ things people threw in the trash. He adds, “The first television set I ever saw was being thrown in the garbage.” This experience proved formative as he credits it with helping him understand that waste was a ‘modern idea.’
He attended college at Princeton University, majoring in psychology and economics. As a freshman at Princeton University, Tom took several friends to Montreal for fall break. While there, he stayed with friends feeding kitchen scraps to red worms and using the resulting fertilizer to feed some of their indoor plants. The results were excellent, and the idea for TerraCycle was born: to help eliminate waste by making quality fertilizer.
Talking about the company’s genesis, he says, “In order to enter a business plan competition at my university, I created the model for TerraCycle. I realized that using organic waste which potentially has zero or even negative costs as a raw material to develop products could be a profitable and responsible business model.” He continued, “I convinced my school’s cafeteria service to give me their waste. Four months later, I decided to drop out to dedicate myself full time to TerraCycle.”
To follow his passion, Tom needed initial funding; he emptied his savings accounts, borrowed money, and maxed out his credit cards to fulfil his dream to create a colossal worm poop conversion unit. Just when he was ready to give up, Tom met Suman Sinha, an angel investor who gave the young entrepreneur a cheque and became TerraCycle’s first investor. With the money, Tom was able to rent his first office space at 20 Nassau St. in Princeton, NJ that eventually led him to become a global garbage mogul.
After the initial hurdles, the challenge then shifted to getting major retailers to take a chance on an unknown product; Tom says, “I had no retail history, no client base; no one had ever heard of TerraCycle. I knew that trying to build slowly, garden centre at a time, would never work. I mean, I had to eat. So I went right to the top, to The Home Depot and Walmart, the world’s largest retailers.”
With keen determination, he kept approaching retailers, and TerraCycle Plant Food was soon listed in Walmart and The Home Depot in Canada. As the company started expanding, TerraCycle moved to a much larger building in Trenton. The new office space allowed graffiti to be freely painted on its walls, thereby becoming a mecca for urban artists worldwide. TerraCycle also teamed up with local artists to throw its annual graffiti jam. Since then, TerraCycle’s U.S. office has been repainted with brand new urban art every few weeks, showcasing a work culture that is open and expressive.
Talking about his company, he says, “The goal of TerraCycle has always been to eliminate the idea of waste, which we do in three ways:
- We develop ways to make things that are non-recyclable nationally recyclable. Examples include cigarette butts, dirty diapers and chewing gum.
- We integrate unique recycled materials into high-end products, like turning ocean plastic into shampoo bottles.
- We create platforms that move disposable products into durable products without sacrificing the economics and convenience that makes disposable products desirable.”
In 2006, the brand was growing steadily, and TerraCycle Plant Foods were widely available in the U.S. for the first time, with both The Home Depot and Walmart carrying the products nationally. In July, Tom and TerraCycle were featured on the cover of Inc. Magazine as the #1 CEO in America under 30 as part of their coveted 30 under 30 Awards.
In 2007, the organization had nine different product offerings, including concentrated versions of its worm poop fertilizer and a biodegradable Seed Starter and Potting Mix. Tom added, “The drastic change was prompted in large part by opportunity. The environmental and fiscal implications for expanding our trash collections and products were massive. We realized that fertilizer was only a tiny fraction of where we could have the impact, and we had to go for something bigger.”
In August 2007, TerraCycle launched their Drink Pouch Brigade, with founding sponsor Honest Tea. The programme was designed to collect and repurpose used drink pouches. Neither company knew what to expect, so 100 open slots were authorized. In less than 24 hours, they were filled! Recollecting the event, he says, “We started running [collection] programs for Honest Tea, CLIF BAR and Stonyfield Farm. Within a year, we worked with Kraft Foods brands like Capri Sun and Nabisco, with Frito-Lay and Mars. It was clear that our new model was ripe with opportunity.”
In 2013 TerraCycle expanded to Australia and New Zealand, marking over 20 countries of operation. In 2019, the company unveiled Loop, a circular shopping system delivering the world’s favourite brands’ products to your doorstep in durable, refillable packaging, moving away from single-use plastic. Loop provides anything from Herbal Essences shampoo to Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Tropicana orange juice, and Milka Biscuits — all in reusable packaging. After using the products, customers put the empty containers in a Loop tote on their doorstep. A delivery service then picked up the containers, cleaned and refilled them, and shipped them to consumers again, which was an instant hit!
When the pandemic hit in 2020, TerraCycle kept innovating and found new ways to eliminate the waste generated by COVID-19. They recycled all types of PPE (personal protective equipment) for businesses and homes and drove the first large-scale PPE recycling initiative for disposable masks. Loop expanded to the continental U.S. and the U.K. and announced vital partnerships to bring reusable packaging to quick-serve restaurants and beauty products. The company is currently operating in 21 countries with great success and an intention to make sustainability and circular economy the norm.
In conclusion, Tom’s advice for budding leaders is, “The challenging part is in the beginning; it’s a leap of faith. But I think the most important thing is to just do it.”