Tom Szaky is a man with a mission to eliminate waste. Parvati Magazine caught up with him this month to inquire about some of the innovative ways he collects and repurposes hard-to-recycle waste through his global company TerraCycle.
Parvati Magazine: Individuals, schools and offices in 20 countries send TerraCycle their hard-to-recycle waste, and you have it made into cool stuff! At this time, which of your products are you excited about?
Tom Szaky: I am excited about an announcement we recently made with Procter & Gamble to manufacture the world’s first recyclable shampoo bottle made from beach plastic, for the Head & Shoulders brand. The first bottles will be on store shelves in France in early summer.
PMAG: You were 19 years old being laughed at and turned away as you pitched your business idea for worm-poop fertilizer in recycled bottles. What in your life prepared you to be the young man who kept persisting?
TS: I think emigrating with my parents from Hungary when I was a child. After tremendous political instability, we went from Hungary to Belgium to the Netherlands and then to Canada where I grew up. My parents were respected physicians in Hungary but had to redo all of their training to practice medicine in Canada. In high school, some of my friends’ parents were entrepreneurs, starting with nothing but accomplishing amazing things. When I saw that, I felt like a whole new world was at my feet and knew I could drive my own success.
PMAG: It seems that TerraCycle shines a light on hard-to-recycle waste. Have there been alternatives or packaging changes as a result?
TS: There are companies, many of whom we work with, who are trying to be as responsible as possible about their packaging on the front and back end. I like being part of the discussion as to how we can affect change, either by finding a solution for a huge problem, like recycling cigarette butts, or giving consumers a way to be part of the solution, as with the Head & Shoulders shampoo bottle. Consumers can make a conscious decision to support the initiative by buying a bottle made with beach plastic and recycling it when it’s empty.
PMAG: The more successful your business is, the better it is for the global community! What can you say about that?
TS: I think it’s great. There are a lot of people out there who want to operate more sustainably, whether it’s corporately by making packaging changes on the front end and providing a way to recycle on the back end, or the people who recycle with us through their homes, schools and offices.
PMAG: This seems like high-energy work. How do you find your personal rhythm among the ideas, people, meetings, juice wrappers and graffiti walls?
TS: I’m a high-energy person! I love my job and coming to work and interacting with our staff and partners. Our offices are reflections of our people and our business and I think it helps stimulate creative thinking.
PMAG: As we’re focusing on the value of laughter this month, can you tell us if you think laughter is important in the workplace and why? How do you foster laughter ringing through the halls of TerraCycle on any given day?
TS: Laughter is definitely important in the workplace. The office can be a very intense environment and laughing at yourself and with your colleagues is helpful to relieve stress and generate camaraderie with your team. As part of the company culture, I have to say, we keep Nerf guns at our desks. They’re usually used casually, but every once in awhile a full-staff game begins and craziness happens. So while trash may be our passion, Nerf guns are our favorite stress-reducing pastime.
Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of otherwise non-recyclable pre and post-consumer waste. TerraCycle operates in 21 countries, working with the world’s largest brands and companies to create national platforms to recycle products and packaging that currently go to landfill or incineration.
Through TerraCycle, Tom is pioneering a new waste management process, involving manufacturers, retailers, governments and consumers, creating circular solutions for products and packaging that otherwise have no way to be recycled.