By closing the loop between waste and raw material, Tom Szaky turned a dorm room project into a profitable and transformative business model. TerraCycle now churns out recycled products as varied as backpacks and dog bowls.
“In the early days when I told people I sold ‘Worm Poop’ the reaction was either laughter or disbelief.”
Tom Szaky has been creating successful companies since the age of 14. When prodded, he explains the triumph as “really just a drive to be on the cutting edge of innovation.” It’s a statement that’s as factual as it is humble — a young star of the dot com industry, Tom is now one of the foremost eco-capitalists with his current venture, TerraCycle.
Tom hatched the idea for TerraCycle while using worms to compost organic waste as a Princeton freshman. In “the pursuit of opportunity,” he left Princeton and formed TerraCycle, producer of the world’s first product made from waste (“worm poop”) and packaged in waste (used plastic bottles.)
Despite numerous awards for TerraCycle’s business model, Tom suffered obstacles. There were “times when my team and I were totally out of money,” Tom says. “I had only one small sale to a local garden center in Princeton, and I was ready to give up, sell back the equipment, recoup as much of my losses as possible, and move on with my life.” But a well-timed invitation as a radio guest initiated an investment from a listener. They were “back in business.”
Tom foresaw that the real value wasn’t in the worm poop, per se, but rather in the many opportunities to turn waste into something usable. “We heard about some interest from companies looking to find solutions for their non-recyclable packaging,” so Tom evolved from garden products to consumer products. Quickly expanding TerraCycle’s offerings, he began upcycling everything from drink pouches and yogurt cups into things like pencil cases and kites.
TerraCycle also benefits local communities; by paying schools and organizations to collect materials for their products Tom effectively engages them in the studied balance of recycling and upcycling that Tom practices. “Every piece of trash collected helps give back to the community in some way,” Tom says.