Profit and recycling aren’t two words you ordinarily find in the same sentence. Then again, Tom Szaky’s way of looking at the world - and business - is anything but ordinary.
Tom is the founder of the world's leading recycling initiative, with the promise to remove waste from our supply chains, working with major brands such as Nestlé and Unilever - hailed as one of Forbes’ Impact 30.
We met Tom earlier this year during Sustainable Brands Paris and were struck by not only his promising business initiative, but his bold ideas and views. A challenging voice driving forward environmental change, we made sure to pin him down for an interview.
Tom shared with us his personal story: born into communism in Hungary, after the Chernobyl disaster, he and his family escaped as refugees, first to Belgium then to Germany, Rotterdam and Canada. Finally, he settled in the US. He reflects:
“I went from one extreme to another extreme and fell in love with business as a tool for change along the way.”
Tom worked his way to Princeton where, in Economics 101, he was taught that the purpose of business is to profit shareholders. However this immediately didn’t sit right with him. He said: “Is that really the reason people go to work? I don’t think so. Yes, profit is an indicator of health, but it’s not the reason for being.”
This got Tom seeking a business idea with more of a purpose than profit. “I landed on garbage. It’s fascinating - we’re built to be repulsed by it. It’s not sexy, so there’s not a lot of innovation within it. It’s ridiculously unexciting to be involved in, but the scale is universally big. Every object you see right now will 100% one day belong to the garbage industry.”
With waste as his focus, Tom started TerraCycle from his dorm room in 2001 - first turning worm poop into organic fertiliser. While the fertiliser itself was popular (it was soon sold in Home Depot and Walmart) its packaging was where TerraCycle’s potential and purpose would unfold.
Tom used old plastic drinking bottles - initially out of ease and affordability - with schools and local organizations collecting bottles in exchange for proceeds. 18 years on and this is the core of TerraCycle today, with manufacturers now sponsoring national collection and recycling programs for waste streams they create.
TerraCycle’s scope is wide. In the last few months alone, they’ve announced recycling schemes for baby food containers, beauty products, laboratory waste - and they just won an award for the development of the first national cannabis recycling program in Canada.
“Everything we do is to move from linear to circle,” says Tom. While this move does dramatically reduce the waste that ends up in landfills and being burnt, Tom sees recycling as only a temporary solution. Instead, he looks to nature to see if we can remove the concept of waste altogether. Tom says:
“If you asked a tree what is waste, I don’t think a tree could define it. Because in nature, there is no such thing. The root cause of consumer waste is not plastic - it’s single-use.”
With this in mind, Tom’s entrepreneurial efforts have shifted to refill and reuse. His new initiative, Loop, delivers products in reusable packaging straight to your door. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo are among the household names already on board, with one new brand a day joining the platform since it launched.
In short, Loop’s aim is to make reusing packaging easier than ever - and the norm - so we move away from the reliance on single-use, disposable packaging. However, Tom also acknowledges that innovation alone won’t solve the world’s problems.
“The cause of every environmental problem is consumer culture. So the clear answer is to buy less, but also to consume differently.”
While as Tom put it himself, there’s nothing sexy about rubbish and waste, we are big fans of solutions that will green our planet.
With widespread awareness of the climate emergency now mounting, the scramble of big brands to find new, regenerative solutions has begun; and with Loop and TerraCycle leading the way, we think there’s nothing more exciting than that.