Capitalism Goes Green: An Introduction to TerraCycle from Tom Szaky, CEO
The idea of “going green” has been rolling since the 1970s, and started becoming trendy in the early 2000s when organic food, sustainable products, and eco-friendly everything started popping up. The movement was largely powered by an effort to change the products, habits and sciences we already had order to make our lives less impactful on the planet. While I took notice of this surge in popularity, I never identified myself as an environmentalist.
That all changed one day when I noticed how much left over food was discarded in my university’s dining halls and how many bottles, notebooks chip bags etc were thrown away in my dorm halls. I was stunned by the amount of waste. But it wasn’t some sort of eco-guilt I was feeling, it was excitement. Waste made the perfect raw material for building new consumer products because it has little to no cost (theoretically even a negative cost), which would allow a company to make eco-friendly products without charging a premium all while doing something good for the planet. A lifelong obsession with waste began!
So, my sophomore year I dropped out of Princeton to grow TerraCycle, which at the time sold worm poop (as an organic fertilizer) packaged directly in reused soda bottles. After I began to see some success with my Made-from-Waste products, I began to see how using waste as a raw material from which to build your product could be beneficial for the environment and the bottom line. By combining environmental and social responsibility with profit, I could create the possibility of a truly eco-capitalist system.
Eco-capitalism sees potential for profit in the world around us as it already exists – including the waste we create – not just changing habits to be “greener.” One unique aspect that’s surfaced with the growth of eco-capitalism is the prospect of companies that aren’t necessarily founded on the basis of being green, indeed, being green anyway. For example, Malt-O-Meal itself, a cereal company, can use its own product packaging to make a difference with what they already have in their hands. Malt-O-Meal is already ‘Reducing’ through the Bag the Box program, reducing their packaging weight by 75% and now they are reusing and recycling through their partnership with TerraCycle, called the Cereal Bag Brigade.
TerraCycle started the Brigade program, free fundraisers that incentivize consumers to collect non-recyclable packaging. The programs provide free shipping to return used packaging and products and contribute two cents per item returned to a school or charity of the collector’s choice. The first programs launched in 2007 with only a few hundreds participating locations. Today TerraCycle has over 70,000 collecting groups in the United States alone!
TerraCycle is certainly not alone in this eco-capitalist movement. Companies young and old, big and small are making a move to go green in order to make green. Companies like RecycleBank and Greenopolis are creating eco-services; more organic food and beverage brands are popping up everywhere, and non-toxic cleaners and garden products continue to gain shelf-space at major retailers. As more and more young companies are realizing the value in the Triple Bottom Line business model (valuing people and planet equally to profit), more established companies are following suit. An easy example is how the meteoric success of Method and Seventh Generation in recent years caused Clorox to launch their Greenworks line of non-toxic cleaners. It’s not just new companies being born – everyone is starting to notice the “green” difference.
Tom Szaky, 29, is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc., one of the world’s foremost leaders in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2006, Inc. Magazine named TerraCycle, “The Coolest Little Start-Up in America!” That same year Tom was named the “#1 CEO in America Under 30.” TerraCycle works with major companies such as Kraft Foods, Kimberly-Clark, Frito-Lay, Mars–and, of course, Malt-O-Meal–to sponsor the collection of post-consumer packaging. With the help of these sponsors, TerraCycle pays schools and non-profits two cents for every piece of packaging they collect. TerraCycle recycles or upcycles the collected ‘waste’ material into affordable, eco-friendly products. Today more than 70,000 organizations have helped collect over 2 billion pre- and post-consumer wrappers. Read more here.
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