A Business Built on Garbage

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A company that started with worm poop has turned into a global phenomenon that tackles some of the toughest stuff in the waste stream.

A company that started with worm poop has turned into a global phenomenon that tackles some of the toughest stuff in the waste stream. “We focus on things that are hard to recycle, not the things that are easy,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. The company has reduced tons of waste and donated millions to charity since it was founded.

Szaky was a freshman at Princeton when he and his friends were using worm poop to fertilize their gardens. The poop inspired them.  In 2004 they had their first purchase order – from Wal-Mart for $250,000 – for poop packaged in soda bottles.

“We realized there was inherent value in poop,” he said. “In business you want to focus on areas where there are problems and you try to find creative solutions.”

From there, Szaky and his friends developed different flavors of poop for different types of plants – African violets and orchids have different tastes. Then they developed gardening tools from recycled materials.

From the beginning they have looked for creative ways of remaking materials that are hard to recycle: cookie sacks and drink pouches became tote bags; vinyl records became clocks and coasters; and bicycle chains became picture frames.

Companies are eager for solutions, he said. TerraCycle’s scientists and designers look at the garbage to figure out the best way to transform it.

“It’s all driven by the waste stream,” Szaky said. “Everything starts with the garbage. Garbage comes in, products go out.”

Since its founding the company has expanded into 20 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Israel, Belgium, Argentina and the Netherlands. Through its collections and brigades programs the company has donated $5 million to charity globally, Szaky said. In 2011 it turned a small profit, he said.

The company is still growing and learning, he said. TerraCycle has tried three times to get a retail store going. But none has taken off. He said the company would likely try again.

“You have to take risks,” he said. “You have to be open to failure and to learn from that failure.”

And there’s the lesson for would-be entrepreneurs.

“If you have an idea, give it a shot. And if you fail, try again,” he said. “Be open to risk.”
University of West Georgia's Richards College of Business will present Szaky on Friday, Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. in the Townsend Center for the Performing Arts.

The presentation, part of the BB&T Lectures in Free Enterprise series, is free and open to the public.

Free tickets are available at the Townsend Center box office. Audience members will have chances to win TerraCycle products and other door prizes.

For ticket information, contact Beth Chandler at 678-839-5261 or bchandler@westga.edu, or call the Townsend Center at 678-839-4722.

Tom Szaky spoke to Gradick Communications’ James Bierley recently. To listen go to http://www.gradickcommunications.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=5668582.