In a perfect world, recycling would be second nature for everyone. The reality, however, is far from ideal. In the past decade alone, people have produced more plastic than they did in the entire previous century—and a staggering 90.5 percent of it didn't get recycled. Many of us have the best of intentions, of course, but we're often stymied by confusion: How should we sort items, and should they be cleaned first? What's actually accepted at our local center? The truth is, municipalities have different rules. And on top of all the red tape and blue bins (and confounding mixed-material containers, like paper cups lined with polyethylene), recycling can cost more than sending things to landfills, so it's a bureaucratic quagmire, too.
Fortunately, Tom Szaky is tackling all of these obstacles—and then some. It all started in 2001 with a worm bin. While visiting friends in Montréal during college, he watched hundreds of red wigglers eat food scraps and create fertilizer right there in a box in their kitchen, and had a flash of an idea. Could he take something seemingly useless, like garbage, and transform it into something useful? Back at Princeton University, he and a friend began foraging food from the cafeteria dumpsters and feeding them to worms in his dorm room. They packaged the organic fertilizer in plastic soda bottles fetched from recycling bins, and TerraCycle was born. Four years later, with national distribution at chains like Walmart and the Home Depot and a major bottle collection program in place, Szaky was ready to make a bigger impact. "I wanted to make garbage the hero," he says. In other words, he wanted to figure out how to recycle everything.
Now headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey, in an office furnished entirely with items rescued from the dump, TerraCycle operates in 21 countries. Staff scientists develop ways to recycle a range of items, then work with regional partners to execute them. Metals get melted, paper and wood are composted, and plastics go through a pelletization process. TerraCycle then sells the recycled raw materials to businesses that make new goods. For example: Deodorant canisters are taken apart, and the components are separated by polymer type and turned into materials that can be used to make a bicycle. Pet-food bags might become dog-food bowls. And cigarette butts can be converted into park benches. Along with its partners worldwide, TerraCycle receives three to four million pounds of "unrecyclable" waste a week—a week!
It gets there in a variety of ways. One is through partnerships with brands willing to invest in the recycling process. Colgate, for instance, sponsors a program through which consumers can send in any old toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, using prepaid address labels. Bausch + Lomb has one for contact lenses and their blister packs, Garnier collects beauty products, and Gillette takes used razors. Another is via its Zero-Waste Boxes, which individuals can buy (or you can rally your office, community center, library, or church to purchase); they're designated for specific categories such as baby supplies and broken sports equipment. When a box is full, you send it back to TerraCycle, which takes it from there. According to Szaky, 75 percent of schools in the U.S. are using them.
Szaky's newest venture, Loop, takes his vision up a notch. Launched in May, the e-commerce site offers products from familiar brands like Pantene, Seventh Generation, and Tide in durable, reusable packaging. Imagine the milk-delivery man of yesteryear, with the convenience of on-demand shipping by UPS, minus the disposable cardboard boxes and plastic bubbles. Szaky hopes this model will enable sustainable practices without sacrificing convenience—a must, he firmly believes, to garner mass acceptance. If you're interested in learning more about Loop, you can view this video about its first partnerships with Kroger and Walgreens, and sign up here.
If Loop takes off, TerraCycle will eventually have far fewer raw materials to recycle, which Szaky considers a greater measure of success than turning a large profit. Giving back is already a priority: Many of TerraCycle's programs reward participants with points, redeemable as donations to the nonprofit organization or school of their choice. To date, the company has given more than $44 million in gifts of this kind. "I would love to live in a world where my grandchildren don’t know what waste is," he says. "They'd only read about a time when there was a big waste problem—because TerraCycle did something to change it."