An interview with the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, Tom Szaky

Tom Szaky is the CEO and founder of Terracycle; the global business with the purpose of eliminating the idea of waste by collecting and recycling what can’t be recycled today.

Tom shares the same beliefs around the importance of design expertise in solving complex sustainability problems.

Here, Tracy interviews Tom to get to the Root of Terracycle and Tom’s passion to eliminate waste.

What is your background what drove you to establish TerraCycle as a business?

I always enjoyed entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is amazing, because you can really influence the world quickly and globally. But when I got the idea about 15 years ago, the topic I was really thinking about was profit. We are taught in school that the purpose of business is profit. Obviously, I think profit’s very important, but the thing I was really questioning was what’s the real purpose of business? Why do employees come to work for you? Why do vendors and customers partner with one business over another? I concluded that it’s probably around, what the business does, what its purpose is, what service it provides and what products it makes. So, combining purpose and entrepreneurship, my friends and I were thinking about big problems. Garbage is one of many, many big problems and it’s a gargantuan issue. And so the concept of TerraCycle came up by trying to create a social business, a for-profit business, but whose purpose was to solve waste, and ideally do that profitably.

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How important is the role of design in helping the world progress to a zero waste society?

I think the role of design is very important in helping progress to zero waste. We designed our way into the situation by using multi-layer mixed materials, colors that can’t be recycled like black plastic or colored glass, small components like spoons, spouts and straws and opaque PET etc.  Once designers understand the implications of using certain materials, they can design highly recyclable and/or reusable packaging. Coincidentally I’m in the middle of writing my fourth book, “simply circular” on this topic; a guide to packaging designers to design into the circular economy.

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Do you think that packaging manufacturers have a good understanding of the business opportunities that exist from designing packaging in a more responsible way?

I don’t think so. While the intension is very positive and authentic, the tools and knowledge are still lacking. Light-weighting is a good example. Products used to come in highly recyclable (and reusable) containers such as glass. Then they moved to aluminum, which is lighter (and thus less material used) though is recycled at a lower rate, and is not reusable. Then to PET which is recyclable but is recycled at a much lower rate vs. aluminum (as it’s less valuable than aluminum). Then to aseptic cartons which are even less recyclable (just barely 60% of the US population has access) and recycled at a much lower rate.  Then finally to pouches which are not recyclable at all (except through specialty recycling systems like TerraCycle).

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Do you think that there is sufficient understanding as to the value of sustainable design as a defined role within the big FMCG brands?

I don’t. As in answers three and four, designers focus too much on simply creating efficiencies in material use, shipping and consumer convenience with lightweighting and add-ons but ended up with packaging that can’t be recycled. And packaging in opaque PET, tubes or black HDPE might look good (and sell well) it can’t be recycled even if it’s made from recycled materials.

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Thinking about the future of single use packaging – do you think we’ll be consuming and using it in the same way in 2050?

I hope not. I don’t think that our planet can support a consumption habit with plastic at its epicenter that much longer.  We need to go back to the past where items used to be refilled and mended, but do that in a modern aesthetic so that consumers get excited about it.  Coincidentally, TerraCycle is working on a concept to change the way people look at ownership of a product and single use consumption. There should be more on that in the coming year.

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What three things could the value chain do better to drive a more efficient, effective circular economy for packaging?

Three things include 1) using recycled materials instead of requiring fossil fuels to create new packaging components, 2) using recyclable materials so that a consumer can put a used package in a recycling bin, 3) design for reuse, not one-time consumption.

To find out more about TerraCycle visit www.terracycle.com

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