Tom Szaky, founder of cool and social business TerraCycle

5 March 2014 — A US business launching an expansion into Australia this week is tackling the recycling of some of the nation’s most pernicious items of consumer waste, while at the same time generating some of its funds for community organisations and schools.

TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky spoke with The Fifth Estate by phone from Sydney, where he was giving a free community lecture on eliminating the idea of waste as part of the launch. He said the company’s mission is to create a market for waste by finding ways to recycle as many difficult products as possible, such as cigarette butts, coffee machine capsules, cleaning product packaging, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes.

These have all previously been on the non-recyclable list and destined for landfill, or in the case of cigarette butts, 35 per cent are simply disposed of on the ground, Mr Szaky said.  For TerraCycle they currently earn the company a turnover of more than $22 million a year, with expectations this could grow to $100 million a year.

“There are around 4.1 trillion cigarette butts littered around the world per annum. They are exceptionally toxic, and [being made of cellulose plastic] can take around 1000 years to biodegrade.

“Our goal has been to bring recycling opportunities to waste streams [like cigarette butts] which have not been available.”

The company has a team of scientists and engineers that has developed recycling methods for some of the world’s most difficult consumer waste products, preferably using existing technology. The methodology for each product is then licensed to an existing recycling operation. The company also has a cadre of polyplastic designers who create both upcycled and recycled product lines for specific markets.

In the United States, there are currently 60 challenging waste streams being recycled, with Mr Szaky aiming to “create a solution for any and all waste”.

The method his team have devised which can be applied to the approximately 70 million empty toothpaste tubes and 50 million toothbrushes thrown out in Australia each year, involves melting the plastics – twice – at 204 degrees Celsius, and producing injection moulded plastics from the results. A similar technique is used for cigarette butts, once the paper covering has been removed for composting.

These are then sold to companies that manufacture a wide variety of products from the recycled plastic. Interestingly, Mr Szaky said, the recycled plastics retain the smell of the original contents even after the industrial-strength heat treatment. This is not an issue with the mint-infused ex-toothpaste tube plastics, but is does mean plastics made from recycled butts are destined for industrial uses such as railway sleepers.

Coffee capsules are separated, with the grounds going to a compost-making operation, and the aluminium recycled the same way as aluminium from cans. In Australia, the Nespresso facility in Nowra will be undertaking the aluminium recycling for coffee capsules, and local operators are also being sought for the other three waste streams.

While there are robust recycling programs already in place for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, paper, glass and aluminium, because those materials have an immediate economic value, these are materials where an “economic gap” has existed in terms of the cost of recycling and value of the material.

The company’s funding model of recruiting sponsors from the companies with the difficult-to- recycle products aims to close this gap, Mr Szaky said. The benefit for the companies is an increased level of corporate responsibility, and potentially a marketing edge that is attractive to consumers.

Anna Minns

Garbage-fuelled global expansion

Terracycle is currently active in 24 countries across Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, with two more operations in Japan and South Korea due to launch later in 2014. The big picture plan is to have an operation in every country where there is waste.

Managing director of Terra Cycle Australia, Anna Minns, initiated the Australian and New Zealand operations after working in the New Jersey head office for 18 months. The newly launched Sydney office currently has two staff, and she expects they will be actively recruiting more staff as the program expands its reach.

World-wide, the company has 120 staff and generated $20 million in revenue in 2013, of which only one per cent was retained as profit, the rest being invested into the business or given away, with Szaky reporting the company gave away close to $5 million in donations in 2013.

“We are a social business,” Minns said.

Tom Szaky surrounded by his company’s core product, waste

The company’s collection mechanism is simple. Individuals sign up at the company website, then fill a cardboard box with the various waste products –  one with coffee capsules, another with cleaning product packaging, another with oral care products, and – for smokers – one for ciggie butts. When the box is full, participants download a free Australia Post shipping label, put it on the box, and mail it to the Sydney warehouse at St Marys.

Once the box is received, participants then receive a small donation, which they can allocate to any community group or school in Australia.

Mr Szaky says there are two reasons for people to participate – for the environmental benefits of recycling and to raise funds for good causes or schools.

The real goal is less rubbish overall

Ultimately however, he wants to see less waste created, even if it is recycled.

“Every single product will one day become waste, the only question is, how soon?”

“The key thing is that TerraCycle is not the answer, it’s like the pill you take when you have a headache…[ideally] you don’t get the headache.

“The real answer is to buy smartly, or not buy [a product] at all….the human population needs to reconsider purchasing habits – waste is a luxury.

“We [will soon be] operating in 26 countries, and what I have seen is that as countries build up the middle class there are more synthetics in waste. In poorer countries, it’s mostly organic.”

Tom Szaky is speaking at a series of free community lectures on eliminating waste, in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland – see our event listing here.

2 replies on “TerraCycle and Tom Szaky, the man who made garbage cool…and social”

  1. What a fantastic business model. There are already some great social enterprises in NSW – and south of Sydney – like Soft Landing (recycling mattresses). So great to see the coffe pod recycling happening in nowra. I hope this is the start of many innovative recycling businesses. And those problematic cigarette butts – now the challenge is to stop them being littered and instead eliminated or recycled.

  2. What a fantastic business model. There are already some great social enterprises in NSW – and south of Sydney – like Soft Landing (recycling mattresses). So great to see the coffe pod recycling happening in nowra. I hope this is the start of many innovative recycling businesses. And those problematic cigarette butts – now the challenge is to stop them being littered and instead eliminated or recycled.

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