Earlier this month, the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute kicked off this year’s Social Entrepreneurship Summit series with an event presented in partnership with the Innovation Leaders Speaker Series featuring Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a social enterprise Eliminating the Idea of Waste®.
Szaky attended Princeton University, where his freshman experience learning profit- and shareholder-focused definitions of business left him feeling less than inspired. Szaky wanted to do something bigger, something that would make an impact.
“I wanted to make the world better. Solve some problems,” Szaky said. “That is the kind of business idea I started searching for.”
A few years later, Szaky took notice of a classmate’s unusual hobby: using worm excrement as plant fertilizer. Soon after, the original TerraCycle, a plant fertilizer supplier, was born. Szaky and his classmates packaged the fertilizer in recycled soda bottles and partnered with home-supply stores like Walmart and Home Depot to put it on the shelves. The business was successful — and profitable — but it still didn’t feel like enough for its leadership team.
Szaky and his team didn’t want to simply produce a product using recycled waste, they wanted to work toward eliminating the idea of waste altogether. After a year of re-evaluation and a major pivot, TerraCycle was re-launched with a new focus on partnering with corporations to create processes for eliminating waste around the world.
Today, TerraCycle operates in twenty countries around the globe. Their partnerships with companies like Colgate, L’Oréal, Target, Pampers and more have allowed them to recycle products that previously would have ended up in landfills and oceans, and to do it on a massive scale. From turning flip-flops into playground slides, chip bags into plastic truck parts, margarine containers into flowerpots, even cigarette butts into park benches — there is no shortage on innovation when it comes to TerraCycle’s waste elimination strategies.
Even better, companies are seeing the value in what they’re doing without taking a hit on their bottom line. One of TerraCycle’s primary focuses is helping companies see how their own commitment to sustainability can generate positive PR and even replace much of the need for spending on marketing and advertising.
“People care about sustainability, but they’re selfish when they shop,” Szaky explained. “We can’t change the consumer. We don’t focus on the consumer. We can take something that is a fundamental negative and unlock the purpose within it.”
“The future we live in shouldn’t just be more sustainable,” Szaky said in closing, “It should be better in every way.”
By working to eliminate the idea of waste, that’s the kind of future TerraCycle is helping companies create.