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Terracycle Introduction

What is TerraCycle?


TerraCycle is one of the best examples of eco-capitalism in action.  The company was founded in 2001 by two Princeton students, Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer.  They started out with their flagship product, TerraCycle Plant Food, which is a liquid plant food.  The catch, however, was that their product was made entirely from waste (worm poop, as it so happened) and packaged in waste (old soda bottles).


From there, TerraCycle blossomed into the great upcycling company it is today.  They currently take a variety of waste products (think KoolAid containers, Capri Sun juice packs, cookie wrappers, soda bottles, and more) and turn them into new useful items (like tote bags and pencil cases).


TerraCycle Products


Here's just a small sampling of three of TerraCycle's product repertoire:

                              Interview with CEO and Founder Tom Szaky


Between July 14th and 20th, 2008, Green Home Huddlers got the chance to post and vote on questions for an interview with Tom. 


To get all of Tom's insights on the ins and outs of eco-capitalism and TerraCycle's unique business, read the full interview.



Q: Hi Tom, thanks for taking questions.  You've got a pretty big range of products I see (everything from rain barrels, to tote bags, to cleaning products).  How did you get there from just starting with your original plant food product? (by Eli)

A: Thank you for participating! Our development and growth is definitely faster than your average company. At TerraCycle, our mission is to find a meaningful use for waste materials (read: smelly garbage). That mission led us to identifying so many different waste streams that needed addressing. From drink pouches to wine barrels to plastic bags, so much material is wasted. Because no one wants these materials, they are easy for us to come by; because sustainable products are ‘all the rage,’ retailers welcome us with open arms.

This combination has allowed us to develop an incredible number of products quickly. Unlike most companies, which spend years in product development and testing, TerraCycle moves through these stages very quickly. First we identify a waste stream, then we figure out what we can make from that material. This is our strength -- creatively solving the “what the hell do we make from it” issue. If a retailer bites, we are in full production in a matter of weeks.

Q:  What is the typical product development process for TerraCycle?  I'm especially interested in material selection.  Do you start by selecting the ideal material for a new product and then do some product design and testing?  How do you evaluate if there will be sufficient quantity of the waste (while there are obviously more than enough 20oz. plastic soda bottles, I imagine it's a lot tougher to determine if you will be able to reclaim enough cookie wrappers)?  Where do the materials ultimately come from?  (combined question by teej and dana1981)

Great follow up question to build off my answer to Eli. Actually, contrary to traditional manufacturing, our first step is identifying the waste materials. Because we are upcycling, not recycling, we have to come up with a finished product that utilizes the original shape and composition of the material. Once we have a material identified and product concept in mind, we test to see if our production costs and needs are environmental and economical.

Great observation, waste stream sourcing is difficult because it's not consistent. If you need to order 1000 rolls of a cloth, it can be made for you, but we are restricted to using materials that already exist. The waste streams we use by definition are in abundance. We are addressing the largest waste streams, the ones that are doing the most ecological damage, so that means there are 100’s of millions, if not billions, being produced every year.

Still, the issue remains that we must make a ship date for Target and how can we assure the collection of enough cookie wrappers in time? Luckily our partnership with Kraft Foods solves that issue. In addition to Kraft, or in this case the brand Nabsico specifically, providing enough funding to collect millions of wrappers post-consumer. We also have deals to take all of the brand’s post-industrial ‘kick offs.’ Any packaged goods manufacturer has some small percentage of off-spec, end run or unused packaging. That small percentage translates to millions of unusable impressions. These post industrial streams help us solidify our manufacturing needs and are just as eco-friendly. If not upcycled by TerraCycle, these ‘kick-offs’ go to a landfill or are incinerated to create energy.

Q:  We all know that the upcycling is an amazing idea, and very important, but when you calculate the net cost of collecting, cleaning and using an old seltzer bottle for housing your cleaning solution, is it also cheaper for you as a business than manufacturing all your own packaging? Keep up the awesome work!  (by Deej)

A: Thanks for the kind words! Surprisingly it is much much cheaper. Keep in mind the following figures are rough estimates. To buy a standard plastic bottle to package your cleaners is (let’s say) 5 cents. To get a 50% post consumer plastic bottle, it jumps to 9-10 cents, for a compostable bottle made from corn plastic you are now talking 20-25 cents per bottle. For our reused bottles, we pay an average of one half cent per bottle, all purchased from local recycling centers. We can clean 100’s at a time and are left with a bottle that cost about the same as a regular bottle, but is the most eco-friendly version possible. This is why TerraCycle prides itself on providing eco-friendly alternatives at no premium.

Q: Can you tell us what the single most important thing an ecopreneur should know before moving forward? Is there one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? (by jenGreenhance)

A: To a young ecopreneur? To always stay true to your mission. In its formative years, TerraCycle was broke and operating out of a dingy garage. Still I turned down a million dollar business plan contest, because the VCs providing the capital wanted me to move away from used soda bottles and our green focus and instead become a traditional fertilizer company. If I had agreed and gone with the money and the suggestions of the more experienced business men telling me what to do, I never would have moved from fertilizers to all the wonderful items were are manufacturing now.

If you have a plan and a dream and you believe it will work then stick with it, no matter what. It won’t be easy or quick, but the payoff is endless if you see it through.


For the complete interview, head on over here.


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