Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Recycling the world's trash into cash

By Natalie Allen and Matthew Knight, CNN
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Mon October 10, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • TerraCycle turns non-recyclable waste into eco-friendly products
  • Founder Tom Szaky started company packaging "worm poop" in recycled plastic containers
  • Company has recycled billions of waste items globally while raising nearly $3 million for charity

Atlanta (CNN) -- They say one man's trash is another man's treasure and for Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, that couldn't be more true.

His New Jersey-based company is helping millions of people wise-up to waste recycling. But is was a wacky idea that got 29-year-old Szaky started.

"My friends and I were trying to grow some plants and realized worm poop was one of the best fertilizers to feed them," Szaky said, "...and that suddenly started getting me to thinking differently about waste."

He started manufacturing "worm poop" and packaging the organic fertilizer in used plastic bottles selling it as "Waste in Waste" under the name TerraCycle.

Eight years on, the company now turns all sorts of non-recyclable waste from all over the world into recyclable eco-friendly products.

"We collect about a billion pieces of waste every month from close to 25 million people, across 19 countries," Szaky explains.

We collect about a billion pieces of waste every month from close to 25 million people, across 19 countries
Tom Szaky, CEO TerraCycle

Garbage is very much a global problem, he says. But whether it's Sweden (who recycle a lot) or in countries like Argentina, which he says is relatively poor at recycling, TerraCycle's model is consistent.

From what he collects, the creations are endless. Juice pouches are made into school folders and kids backpacks; chip bags become bags, even furniture.

"Every Old Navy store (a clothing chain) in America has now started collecting flip flops and we are taking those flip flops and building them into playgrounds around the U.S," Szaky said.

TerraCycle's influence is also growing around the world, says Szaky, with the company now collecting 6% of Sweden's coffee capsules and 2% of all of the UK's pens.

There is no waste stream that cannot be recycled, he says, even diapers and chewing gum.

"We will be taking used gum, literally old chewing gum, collecting it all over Brazil and making it into all sorts of plastic products," he said.

"Gum is actually just flavored plastic so we can very easily make it into any plastic product you can imagine."

Trash comes from individuals and major companies around the globe. Schools are also major contributors.

"We are in, I believe, 73% of American elementary schools, actively collecting waste for us and that is the same all around the world," he said.

"We find out that kids care a lot about the environment and they are all willing to be engaged and get their hands dirty if you will and bring in waste and make it really happen."

But TerraCycle don't just take the trash away, they also give back Szaky says, paying shipping costs as well as making donations to schools or charities which so far has raised nearly $3 million.

Szaky continues to grow the business. A new Facebook game, "Trash Tycoon" was recently launched and next year he will steer the company into new markets in Asia and Eastern Europe.

All with the aim of saving more waste from landfills and incinerators while spreading the company's mantra, "Eliminate the Idea of Waste," and turning the world's trash into cash.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT