I am thrilled to be launching Your Legacy Project with a social entrepreneur who is making a phenomenal difference. I was inspired to interview Tom Szaky after discovering the quiet ‘recycling revolution’ that is TerraCycle and the incredible impact it’s making across the globe. This enigmatic entrepreneur has engaged over 60 million recyclers worldwide, raised over $15 million USD for charity and delivers recycling services in over 24 countries – and the numbers are growing, daily.
Tom and TerraCycle have built a global recycling empire from the inside out – literally. From the moment I contacted TerraCycle HQ in Sydney, Australia I was met with enthusiasm, warmth and an immediate sense that everyone in this organisation is connected to a higher purpose, and after interviewing their founder I can see why.
He spoke to me via Skype from his kitchen – fresh faced and adorned with his signature John Deere® cap. Read on to discover his story, advice and the 3 most important things you must do to become a successful social entrepreneur.
Can you recall the ‘feeling’ and ‘intention’ behind TerraCycle? Where did your desire initially come from to establish the business?
I’ve always been fascinated by entrepreneurship, partly because I was born in Hungary when it was still Communist, and entrepreneurship is a very anti-Communist idea. After I turned 4 we left Hungary for Europe moving to Canada, before finally settling in the US where I attended university, which is maybe one of the center points of Capitalism these days.
I decided to start a few different companies, and what struck me during that journey was how powerful entrepreneurship could be. At the time none of these (businesses) had anything to to do with society or being a social business but I really fell in love with the concept that when you have an idea and you work really hard, it can become real.
In university, I started to think more about the purpose of business, and one of the big challenges I discovered was that the purpose of business was profit, profit to shareholders to be exact. While that’s an important function to business, I struggled with that being the purpose of why we go to work. Most of us don’t go to work to benefit shareholders. Most stakeholders, employees, and customers don’t even know who the owner is!
Reflecting on that, I realised that the purpose of business should really be what it does to benefit society, or the planet, or both.The purpose of business should really be what it does to benefit society, or the planet, or both.Click To Tweet
I searched for a business model that would accomplish that purpose, and I found that solving the idea of garbage fit, and TerraCycle was born. 14 years later, we operate in 24 countries including Australia and New Zealand, and we just opened Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. We’ve evolved from being a worm poo company to one that collects and recycles ANYTHING that you couldn’t recycle in your normal council or municipal system.
What were you doing before setting up TerraCycle? Was there an event or catalyst?
We actually started by taking organic waste, feeding it to worms, and creating a fertilizer. Back in Canada, my friends and I started growing pot in our basements. We couldn’t get the plants to grow well. On a hunch, we started feeding the plants worm poop or castings (as they’re properly called), and that was the inspirational moment! You’re taking garbage, people pay you for it, then making a product that plants truly love.
There’s something magical here! That’s when the concept of garbage started getting unpacked, and literally how TerraCycle was born. That was the very specific moment where it all came to life.
How does what you’re doing fulfil you? Is the answer found in what you set out to achieve or is it a more personal sense of fulfilment?
Great question. TerraCycle fulfils me on multiple levels. A lot of entrepreneurs want to start a business, scale it then sell it. I’m not keen on selling TerraCycle. I hope to keep doing it for a very long time and the reason is because it’s incredibly fulfilling!
We’re collecting and recycling close to a million kilos of non-recyclable waste every week, truly phenomenal numbers that (previously) had no other destination other than landfill.
We’re also raising millions of dollars quarterly for charities that give back to society. But more than that, it fulfils me as an entrepreneur and capitalist. It’s really fun and exciting to make money and to experience all that a profitable business can provide but it also gives back on a creative level.
This work stimulates the mind on so many perspectives. We’re giving back every minute, every hour, every day – primarily to the planet and secondly to society.
Literally everything will become garbage, with no exception. So one day we’re thinking about how to take a T-Shirt and repurpose it into maybe insulation or a business card, or how do you take your remote control and do something with it? How do you take a cup and do something with it? Everything is different, but the truth is that one day it will all become waste.
At TerraCycle, we get to deal with everything and that gets exciting because we’re interacting with all sorts of items, from consumer to industrial products. We’ve recently invented latex glove and lab gear recycling, so it’s very stimulating academically and creatively. If you go to any of our offices, anywhere in the world, every detail is made from garbage. So it’s a vibrant, exciting place to work. We even have our own television program on its 3rd season here in the US and premiering in Australia on SBS2 called Human Resources.
It’s fulfilling on all these different levels and I love what I do, I don’t really even consider it work because it’s tremendous fun.
What has been a highlight so far?
Creating cigarette recycling which we invented 3 years ago. It’s live in 11 countries and we’re constantly adding to the list. We collect and recycle close to a million cigarettes daily.
What has been the greatest challenge so far?
That’s tough because we are constantly innovating and challenging ourselves to solve the problem of waste. Each waste stream is wildly different but our greatest pursuit and highest challenge is how do you solve and unpack a waste stream and make its recycling situation come to life when it couldn’t before? You need to come up with 3 things.
- How do you collect it? From consumer to us, but safely, economically, and in a way that you’ll actually want to do it? An extreme example would be how do you collect chewing gum? Or your child’s soiled diapers? Or feminine hygiene products?
- How do we process it? Reuse, repurpose or refurbish? Or do we upcycle it, which is put into a new context, like sewing jute pouches into backpacks? Or how do we break it apart through science and develop new polymers and plastics from it?
- Finally, how do you get people to get excited about this? Influence their behavior, and what’s the business model that brings it all together?
How does your work serve a higher purpose and how does it make you feel?
Intrinsically all we do is try to serve a higher purpose. In doing this, I think it’s important not to be too broad. We operate in a very specific vertical, we try to eliminate the idea of waste by recycling those things that are not recyclable.
That’s the concrete way we accomplish that higher purpose. That’s our direct focus. We may have secondary benefits accomplished by our primary purpose – raising millions for charity, educating people around waste, just making people laugh!
Fundamentally you’re saving the planet on a basic level for the next generation!
Many people ask us what our sustainability strategy is, and I always struggle with that question because that’s all that we do. If what we were doing did not move the world to become more sustainable we wouldn’t do it. Our purpose is sustainability.
What great lesson have you learnt so far in life?
Traditionally people say that you have to choose between making money or serving society and the planet. That may have been the case in our parent’s generation (who were very linear in their choices), but today there’s a great overlap – you can create a profitable business that serves people and the planet. That to me is fantastic.You can create a profitable business that serves people and the planet. That to me is fantastic.Click To Tweet
Businesses in the past have often been seen as ‘destroyers’, but today they can be ‘rejuvenators.’ Business can do good things and be profitable. We’re not a non-profit, we are a profitable business, that has grown 14 years in a row, including this year while doing the right thing.
We are demonstrating that you don’t have to choose money over purpose, they both work hand in hand. Hopefully, this will inspire people to come up with more business models like ours. It saddens me that we have no competition. The world of garbage is a very un-innovative world and it really ought not to be.
How can future entrepreneurs start thinking this way, what should they be thinking about?
Firstly they need to identify the issue they’re going to solve. For example domestic violence. I’d say unpack: why does that issue exist? what brought it about?
Going by the above, the issue for us is: why does garbage exist? Garbage exists because of three things – we consume too much, and too much of what nature doesn’t know what to do with and the output is so unvaluable it doesn’t make sense to collect it and process it because you’ll lose money. Once you’ve understood that, then you can start thinking of models to solve that issue, especially when you know the why.
If you don’t unpack the why then you’re acknowledging that it’s been here forever. Because almost every issue humanity deals with is humanly created. Whether it’s ocean garbage, clean air, domestic violence, discrimination, you pick the issue. It’s created by us. If it’s created by us it’s had a genesis, it wasn’t here in the beginning.
The next step is to start thinking about a business model, and I want to underline business here because that will make it easier than a model that relies on constant charity. Maybe that’s the only answer, but I’d first recommend to try and figure out a model that generates profits.
You want to think about what the model is to solve the problem, then how can you make it relevant to a stakeholder that will fund it. And here’s the key underlying point: fulfilling the stakeholder’s core goals.
Let me bring this to life, otherwise it can sound really academic: In garbage, one of our stakeholders is L’Oreal. Now why is it important for L’Oreal to make cosmetics recyclable? Because it not only fulfills their sustainability goals, but it also drives their core goal which is to increase market share by appealing to the consumer who chooses to buy a recyclable lipstick or shampoo versus the non-recyclable type.
Now, businesses simply can’t get behind every good thing there is to do in their business – it’s not possible, there’s not enough time or funding for them to be able to manage it. But If you frame it that way, your stakeholder’s eyes open up and they will get behind your cause because it makes sense for their business!
Another of our stakeholders are retailers. One of the things they like about collecting non-recyclable items in their store is that it not only drives sustainability but more importantly it drives foot traffic as well. You may go to a retailer now to recycle your aerosol container or coffee capsule, and then choose to shop there because they offer recycling.
We also have cities like Melbourne that do cigarette recycling with us. Why do they do that? Because it makes the city cleaner, and improves tourism. It’s really important that you approach an organization or stakeholder, and do it in the context of “this is important and the right thing to do.”
Lastly, focus only on the one issue. Don’t try to solve every problem in the world. You’re going to get too distracted and it’s not going to create scale. At TerraCycle our goal is to solve waste, so we will work with everyone: big tobacco companies to big mega retailers like Walmart and others to solve that specific goal. Then other issues, whether labor rights, fair trade farming, you name it can be solved by other great people who are inspired by what we’re doing.
Then collaborations take place and it goes to a whole new level, right?
You got it and yes it compounds, beautifully. But it’s very, very important to keep those 3 pieces in focus.
What great lesson have you learned so far in life?
In business, the greatest lesson for me is that the greatest innovation will come in the times of the greatest desperation. That makes desperate times optimistic times, because you will come up with ideas you would never come up with if times were comfortable.
The best metaphor for this is if you want a beautiful rose in your garden, you have to actually hurt the rose plant, you have to cut it back, put it under stress, and that’s when a beautiful rose will come. It blossoms. If you let it grow easily it will never flower. Same with any plant, ironically the more you hurt it, the more its going to be beautiful. The more fruit it will bear because it needs stress. So stress is actually a really positive thing. Desperate times are not negative, they have the potential to birth the best ideas you’ve ever had. This has played out for us many times.
In life, I think it may be cliche, but truly anything you can dream can happen, it just takes a tremendous amount of work. You can’t underestimate that, and a little bit of luck. Beyond the good idea, you have to work really hard and get a little lucky and there’s a very good chance it will happen. The key underlying point is don’t deny yourself dreaming up an idea.
How would you like to be remembered? As a garbage guy? Saving the planet? Inspiring Others?
I’d love to be remembered as the garbage guy, who helped open our eyes that everything has value out there, everything can have a new purpose if we do it right, and hopefully one that actually made a noticeable impact.
If you could give one piece of advice what would it be and why?
If you have an idea or you just want to pursue something, just begin. Too many people think about it too much, and overthinking usually ends in not doing anything at all. There’s a lot of value in acting, because once you start the truth will come out whether it’s good or bad, then you can edit and do it again.The basis of creation is to actually begin.Click To Tweet
What’s one thing anybody can do to help regarding waste?
Simply put, it’s not about recycling our way around the problem, it’s about buying differently. You don’t have to be an expert at recycling. It’s by remembering that everything you buy will become waste, and if you acknowledge that, then you can make the biggest step because if you never buy it in the first place, it never becomes garbage.
A few of my favourite bonus questions with Tom…
Who or what is your favourite?
- Musician? Radiohead.
- Author or Book? Confessions of An Economic Hitman by John Perkins
- Movie? Pi. written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
- Breakfast? Normally coffee and a banana, but my favorite is big hotel buffet breakfast.
- Mantra or quote? Everything Has Value
Find out more about Terracycle:
So tell me, what is your Legacy Project going to be? Let’s learn from Tom, absorb his advice and create a world where the purpose of business is to serve a higher purpose. Let’s do this together by sharing with your friends and colleagues in the comments below. Tell me your ideas, your plans and thoughts to create a business that makes a difference – I can’t wait to hear them!
Live with purpose!