In keynote, entrepreneur talks turning waste into profit

BY EMILY ORLEY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 1, 2009

Tom Szaky, a 27-year-old Princeton University dropout, launched a multi-million dollar company with worm poop.

Will Moeller/Daily
Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle Inc., delivers a presentation on upcycling at the Ross Net Impact Forum on Friday January 30th, 2009

Szaky, who co-founded TerraCycle Inc. at the age of 21 in a grungy basement of an old office building, was the last keynote speaker for the Ross Net Impact Forum, a two-day event featuring speakers from around the country talking on environmental sustainability.

Six years after its inception in 2002, Szaky’s company is the leader in upcycling, a process of recycling “unrecyclable” materials.

“There is no product that can’t be made from waste, and there is no waste that can’t be upcycled,” Szaky said to a crowd of business-clad men and women in the ballroom of the Michigan League.

Szaky explicitly explained what, exactly, garbage is and how it can be reused.

Contrary to what most people think, Szaky said that most “unrecyclable” objects can actually be recycled.

Terracycle partners with some of the nations largest companies, including Capri-Sun, Oreo and Stonyfield Yogurt. The company has exclusive rights to collect these companies’ used products from consumers like yogurt cartons or juice pouches and use them to make school supplies, lawn products and cleaning products.

TerraCycle’s most successful project, creating pencil cases out of Capri-Sun juice pouches, was the most popular pencil case sold at Wal-Mart last year.

When Szaky went home for fall break his freshman year, he said he and his friends noticed that the “plants” they were growing in his basement thrived when they added worm poop to them.

This discovery gave Szaky the idea that anything, even worm poop, could be recycled and used for something useful.

Shortly thereafter, Szaky dropped out of college and began mass-producing worm poop to sell as fertilizer.

“There is no such thing as garbage,” Szaky said. “We can even sell our own waste.”

During his keynote address, Szaky said that most people would prefer to use “environmentally friendly” products, but they are usually much more expensive.

This is where Szaky said his job began. He figured out how to create “green” products that didn’t carry exorbitant price tags.

He went to many big brand companies and asked them if he could collect their used products from their customers and upcycle them to create an entirely new product.

The companies, who were desperately seeking “green” solutions, gladly accepted.

Since items like yogurt cartons are traditionally nonrecyclable, there is no choice for the consumer besides throwing them out. Through TerraCycle, people now have the opportunity to help the environment.

“There is nowhere in America where people don’t want to do the right thing,” Szaky said.