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Entrepreneur Tom Szacky founded his business TerraCycle to solve the gargantuan problem of waste in the world. He began to literally gather waste and find ways to use it in a circular model instead of a linear one that we currently use. TerraCycle is looking for ways to make recycling waste essential in the industry like involving P&G to use marine plastics in their shampoo bottles. They want to make recycling sexy and doable.
Consumers drive the industry whether they are conscious of it or not. Use your dollars to decide if bubblegum will exist in 6 weeks time. He describes ways to think about buying goods, and whether to buy them at all.
Tom Szacky is breaking it down to achieve small victories in the industry. This glaring global problem is only going to get worse. He is doing what we are all thinking about and he is doing it in 21 countries around the world. How are you going to be part of the change? He would argue to reuse, recycle and buy conscious brands that are making a difference.
– Hey, welcome back to the Urban Monk, Dr. Pedram Shojai here with Tom Szaky, who is one of my favorite people I met this summer, filming the Prosperity movie, sorry I got all my movies blended at this point. And so we were on this long journey trying to look at what the challenges we have as a culture are with waste. And we found TerraCycle, and this is a company that he founded 7 years back, and it really had to do with addressing this waste issue, and really going after it in a way that’s going to be productive, and not small scale, and he works with companies that are very big, and are really interested in making a difference. And we’re going to talk about why that is, and how he goes about doing it, because the world needs more solutions right now. I just read a story about how in the Mariana Trench they’re finding all sorts of trash. And so there’s no way to hide, the garbage is getting deposited everywhere. And really, the question is, what do we do with so much stuff? Cause there’s too much stuff. Tom, welcome to the show.
– Hey, thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
– So you’ve got a map of the world behind you, and it’s made out of, is that cork?
– These are wine corks, we’re actually the world’s biggest collector and recycler of wine corks. This just happens to be, I mean, all of our conference rooms are literally upcycled. And I just happen to be in the one that’s our travel room, and there’s a lot of fun sort of things made from garbage, that just happens to be the world map. But if you came to our offices, we’re headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey, literally every detail of all of our spaces around the world are made entirely from waste, including where I’m sitting right now.
– So let’s back into your story real quick, because you got into this, you’re a smart guy going to school, you found a problem, a big world problem, and you said, “You know what? “I can’t ignore this.” And you got into this concept, how?
– I was an undergrad student. And I was really thinking about, I always enjoyed entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is amazing, because you can really influence the world quickly, globally, I mean, TerraCycle operates now in 21 countries around the world, from Australia to China, of course US, and many others. But the question that was really in mind, was what they teach us school is the purpose of business is profit. Profit, profit, profit. And I think profit’s very important, but I think the thing I was debating in my mind, was what’s the real purpose of business? Why do employees come to work? Why do vendors and customers partner with one? And it’s probably around, what does the business do? What is its purpose? What service does it provide? What product does it make? And in that mode, we were thinking about, my friends and I sort of, “What’s a big problem?” Garbage is one of many, many big problems. But it’s a gargantuan issue. And so the concept of TerraCycle came up by trying to create a social business, a for-profit business, but who’s purpose was to solve waste, and ideally do that profitably. And that was now about 13, well, the idea was 15 years ago. I ended up leaving school about 13 years ago. And luckily, knock on wood, we’ve expanded and grown every year since then, trying to effectively eliminate the idea of waste by collecting and recycling anything that can’t be recycled today, and then integrating more recycled materials in our normal, day-to-day products. And trying to make everything much more circular, instead of very linear, which is the world we live in today.
– So there’s a few ways we deal with waste currently. And some of them are better than others. I remember from the movie interview, I think you had mentioned five. I would love to kind of tease that out here.
– Yeah, absolutely. There are effectively five things that you can do with waste. Now, the worst thing, it’s not even in the realm of the five, is littering, just throw it on the ground. And that may seem like, “Who does that?” But 25% of the waste in the world is littered, and ends up in our marine systems, in our oceans, our rivers, especially, in the five major Gyres. So it’s still 25% of the world’s waste is littered. That doesn’t even count as in the first five. So the worst thing to do when you call proper waste management, would be landfilling, basically putting it in a big pile. That’s still the most common solution in the world, very trendy in the Americas, a little less trendy in Europe, and wealthy Asian markets, like Japan or South Korea, but overall the world’s most popular choice. And that’s, it’s not a positive thing, it’s basically putting all of this valuable material in a big pile, and that’s that. Better than incineration, sorry, better than landfilling, but still linear, you’re destroying the waste, is burning the waste, ideally with some energy recovery. That’s called incineration, or waste-to-energy, or energy conversion. Those are all synonyms. And it’s basically, you put into a big incinerator, a big fire. And if it has more energy, more caloric value, that comes out than you put in, then you make energy. The challenge with incineration is, again, you’re destroying the waste. The things that are very difficult to recycle, actually burn at negative energy value, which means you have to put more energy in than you get out. And ironically, the things that are the most recyclable, like a pekoe tea bottle, which is like a soda bottle, are the ones that actually burn a positive energy. So that’s more popular now in countries like Germany, Japan. But still something that destroys waste. The circular solution, solutions that allow you to go around over and over, so the next best is recycling. Recycling is where, if you take something like, say a juice pouch, like a Capri Sun pouch, recycling it is where you melt it all together, make a plastic, or something from it, and then turn that into a new product. That’s about the vast majority of what we do, is recycle things that are not typically recyclable. Everything from cigarette bugs, to dirty diapers, and many things in between. Now, above recycling is upcycling. Upcycling is where you take that same juice pouch, but instead of destroying its form and function, you value the composition, what it’s made from, and its form, and you take that pouch and you sew together into, say, a backpack, or something like that. Or taking wine corks, and making the thing you see behind me. That’s upcycling. Recycling these wine corks would be shredding them, and maybe making it into the sole of a sandal or something. So upcycling is super exciting, and sexy, and has a lot of visibility, but it’s low value. And above upcycling is reuse, where you basically value that object for exactly what it was intended for, and basically clean it, fix it, and sell it again. We do a lot of that in clothing, toys, electronics, and some simple shaped items. Those are what you can do now. I just wanted to mention that none of those are the answer to waste, at all. Those are solutions to a problem. But the way to get away from even happening the problem, is actually above all that, which is, how do you buy things differently? So instead of buying tons of disposable stuff that’s just going to break super fast, or have very short lifetimes, I encourage people to think about buying consciously. That simply means knowing that everything that you buy will be waste. And then buy according to that thought process. Better than that would be be buying durable instead of disposable. And better than buying durable, is buying used. Because if it is durable, it ought to be available used. And then the actual answer to all the environmental problems, whether you care about the fish in the ocean, garbage, air quality, water quality, you name it, stop buying. And you solved every problem in the world.
– That’s so terrible for the economy. So when 9/11 happens, George Bush comes on, and says, “Don’t stop shopping.” Because everything in our economy is built around consumption of goods. And so the whole thing is designed around us buying things that are unsustainably built, and keep filling up landfills, and choking out the planet.
– You’re right. I just want to echo that though. It’s not necessarily the nail in the economic coffin, if you will. Because if you don’t buy a bunch of stuff, you can spend that money on going to the theater, watching a movie, experiencing things.
– [Pedram] Getting a massage.
– Or getting the idea of something, but not buying that said object. So you can still really fuel the economy without a bunch of disposable stuff.
– So that puts you in a bit of pickle. Because you work with some of the biggest consumer good product companies in the world. And they’re loving working with you, because you make them look good, and you’re helping them be better corporate global citizens. But at the same time, you’re telling them, you’re telling people to stop buying stuff. So it’s an interesting dilemma. It’s an interesting place we sit in the world, and looking at the problems down the barrel here.
– Well, it’s interesting, yeah. And what we’ve done actually with a lot of our partners, is we frame our model in sort of three things we do. The first thing we want to do with a partner, is move away from linear systems to at least collect and recycle that object. So take something as simple as a toothpaste tube. Toothpaste tubes today are not recyclable anywhere in the world. So the first step in working with a company like Colgate, in that example, which is the biggest in the space, is at least let’s figure out a way to collect and recycle all the toothpaste tubes out there. That’s step one. And yes, what’s the value for them there, is then they can now claim that their product is recyclable, it makes them better, and they can win from that. That’s stage one. And we do that with hundreds and hundreds of consumer product companies all around the world, retailers, and so on. Once that is done, the next thing we start working on with companies, and it’s really always the second step, is how do we integrate more recycled materials into their products. A big landmark announcement that we just had, literally three weeks ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was we announced with P&G, which is the world’s largest consumer product company, the biggest deployment of ocean plastic ever in history. And we did that by making the Head and Shoulders shampoo bottle, which is the number one shampoo brand in the world, 25% out of marina plastic. And there it’s massive in scale, huge solution to ocean plastic, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. And that’s the second phase. We do this with lots of companies, how do we integrate garbage back into their systems. But then, there’s the third step. And we’re going to be launching this, actually with a couple of partners, in about a year or two, which is coming up with ways we can redesign their products, to be fundamentally durable. And move away from the idea of disposability overall. And what we want to try to do, is take our partners and move along the spectrum, where at the end we wake up, and it’s not about just collecting and recycling their stuff, it’s about moving away from the concept of garbage overall. But it’s this progression. You can’t do one until you do, you have to do it step by step by step. And that’s what we’re taking companies on a journey on. As long as you can show value along the way, not make them feel like their going to become irrelevant, or their business will suffer, then you can really unlock some major magic, and do it at monster scale, on a global basis.
– I love the incremental change, kind of behavior change model that you’re following here. We can talk about gold standard, and never get anything done. Or we can get in, roll up our sleeves, and just start working. And 15 years from now, you can imagine a world where your countertop and your bathroom has a place where toothpaste gets deposited from a fabricator, Procter & Gamble, whoever it is, basically just has the IP, and sends the chemical equivalent to the toothpaste. I mean, who knows? But you don’t have to ship it in plastic anymore.
– And you nailed it. And that is actually not a, what you just describe is actually plausible. But the only way to get someone, in the case of toothpaste, say, Colgate to get there, is to show small step points along the way. Because one of the challenges with sustainability, especially if you’re trying to motivate an organization, whether it’s a big retailer or a consumer product company, but whether it’s just a local government group, or anyone, even like the business you’re in. If you make the topic too big, too hairy, too far away, people will get excited, and won’t action. The key is to do small digestible steps, and make sure you celebrate and win, every step of the way. So to give you an example, when we launched this ocean plastic bottle with Head and Shoulders, what it did is it suddenly woke up the entire community consumer product companies, and said, “This is possible.” The amount of phone calls we’ve been getting from competitors to Procter & Gamble, and even in internally, different divisions of P&G, about how do we now replicate this and make this even bigger, is phenomenal. But the only way that happened was proving it in one country, one brand, and creating victory. And then growing it from there. I think that’s really important as you think about creating any environmental movement, is making it digestible, because sometimes social environmental movements are so gargantuan, and dealing with such big issues, people feel there’s not much we can do. And this is critical in environment and sustainability, I feel like a lot of movies, like Inconvenient Truth, one of the most cornerstone environmental documentaries, some of the challenges is that, it accurately portrays how bad everything is right now, from an environmental point of view. And it leaves you with very little you can do. And then you get educated, but you also feel unempowered to make change. And what will you do? Do nothing. You’ll be more educated, but you won’t action. And we need people to action. And the way to action is to make it from positive, get people to smile. We have our own TV show, we’re now in our forth season of our own reality show, it’s a comedy. It’s supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to make you laugh. And then inspire you to take action, versus trying to inspire you to take action through negative. Which is sometimes the challenge of a lot of the communication we see in sustainability and environment.
– Well, and that’s a big thing. And so a lot of things I’m seeing see shifting in the dynamic, especially with .orgs and all that, is people are asking a bigger question, is, “What is your theory of change? “And are you tackling big global problems, “and are you trying to just poke at people “and just give them information? “Or are you actually creating some sort of radical, “transformative vehicle for things to happen, “and behavior to change.” So for me, if I’m using Head and Shoulders, all I have to do is continue to use Head and Shoulders, and suddenly I’m taking out the Pacific Gyre, or wherever you guys are drawing the plastic, which makes it super easy.
– And that’s the key. Our message here on that, and that’s one of the hundreds of examples, but the message there is, “You can help be a part of a movement, “you never thought you could be a part of.” A, by buying that product, instead of a different shampoo. B, by recycling it, so it doesn’t end up back in the system. Cause that’s the important thing. You don’t want to just get it out once, and throw it back in the ocean. And the third, is then you can have actually make the bottle, by joining your local beach cleanup. Because this is a constant supply chain, where we’re now collecting monstrous amount of material. And people can then get involved. What’s crazy in today’s world, no matter what side of the equation you are politically in the US, we are actually debating global warming. How crazy is that, that it’s even being debated? But it makes sense. It can be debated, because you said you were skiing recently. There’s snow on the ground, how could there be snow on the ground when the world is warming. And that complexity is what makes it hard to make it absolute. Garbage is unique in that sense, because waste is something that I’ve never seen debate, I’ve never met a human being, whether they’re right wing, left wing, old, young, male, female, anywhere in the world, that says garbage is good, and recycling is bad. And there’s something simple, and that simplicity allows people to take some action. But I think we gotta think about that metaphor, and bring it to the more complex environmental issues, that are not so simple as: Garbage is bad, and recycling is good.
– So last, originally maybe like three, four years ago, people were talking about this Gyre of plastic in the middle of the Pacific, being the size of the State of Texas. And last I heard, it might the size of a lot more than that. How scalable is this? Like how much is Head and Shoulders going to start putting a dent into this? And then, how much is this have to like create a snowball effect, and cascade people from other consumer products companies to come in and really start taking a big bite out of this thing?
– It’s a great question. I’m going to try to answer it in many different ways. So first, if I answer it from, what is the impact of this particular project, is it’s the biggest solution to plastic to date, by volume, in any respect, percent in the bottle, amount of ocean plastic recovered, number of bottles made. And that set a record just for the French deployment, and now we’re going to be scaling it up across dozens of countries, with other products beyond just Head and Shoulders. It’s going to be big. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, still 25% of the plastic in the world ends up in our ocean. So this solution is not even, it’s barely, it’s addressing maybe a percent of what’s even being added. Forget what’s already there. Because the nature of the problem is so massively big. Now, hopefully what this will do. It won’t solve it. Let’s just be fair. It’s not going to solve it. But maybe it will galvanize enough people, enough companies, retailers, to get into to create even more mass. And we are seeing that play out, even in just the TerraCycle ecosystem. And maybe it’ll educate people to getting all that material, because we have to first stop getting material into the ocean, and then we have to clean up the ocean. And there’s not just one garbage Gyre. The Great Pacific garbage patch that we talk about. Every ocean Gyre, of which there are five, is the size of the Great Pacific garbage patch. And the Mediterranean is covered, it’s all everywhere, rivers, whether it’s the Mississippi, all the way to the rivers in Brazil, are filled with these materials. I think it’s all about, first, raising awareness, then showing that we can accomplish massive supply chains, and really build a business proposition to create the solution. But again, none of these are the fundamental answer. The answer is we have to stop putting this stuff in the ocean to begin with. And only then will the cleanup efforts create incremental value, versus is just putting a little plug in the faucet, that’s just spilling all this material in constantly.
– How optimistic are you about us being able to do this fast enough, and at scale, to really start offsetting some of the toxic effects of fish getting petrochemicals in their cells, and all the things that you read about?
– They already are. A lot of the sushi and fish that you eat has all these pollutants already in it. And I think to be fair, I’m an optimistic by heart, so it’s about, “Let’s go do this stuff.” But I think that the issue that we’ve created, from an environmental point of view, whether it’s global warming, whether it’s garbage, it’s going to hit us in the face really hard, soon. It already is to some degree. We’re looking at problems like Syria, and others. These are environmentally generated issues. And so we’re going to have a lot of negative to deal with. But the only way to one day wake up, maybe hundreds of years from now, and wake up in a sustainable planet, is to start and create these answers while we deal with the negatives. It’s sort of like, imagine if you’re fighting a terminal disease, we are sick, as people. And we have to accept that. And we’re gonna have to deal with the symptoms that come from illness. In environment, that’s going to be more natural disasters, rising sea levels, contaminated food supply, you name it, dwindling diversity, less animals, and I can write all off the issues. Those are the symptoms. And those are already present, and more will occur. But we also have to start taking our medicine, and changing our, it’s not even just taking the medicine, it’s changing our fundamental habits, so that we can become healthy, and recover from this. But we’re going to have to do both in parallel. It’s critical to think, to not perceive that everything is okay, and that these are, we can one day scale these nicely and be okay. It’s not going to good. But we have to go through that process.
– What you’re describing here is actually one of the fundamental distinctions between, say, allopathic medicine, and a holistic approach, where allopathic medicine is battlefield medicine, and so it’s like, “Oh hey, I got a cancer diagnosis, “now I go for chemotherapy, “and have a very aggressive intervention. “And that’s all that I need to do,” versus, like, “Well, let me just clean up my house, “and start eating vegetables, and all these things.” That will also be part of shifting the ecosystems to help offset this, and that’s–
– I think you need both, in this case.
– Yeah, absolutely.
– Cause it’s so bad. We do have that metaphor of cancer right now, and I think we need the chemotherapy, which is, call it, laws that tax packaging, these sort of projects that we’re trying to do to clean up the oceans, and land based waste, and all that stuff. But we also have to be holistic. And we need to stop creating the problem to begin with. We can’t, it’s sort of like even the food issue. If one’s obese, you can’t work your way, you can’t just exercise, and exercise, and exercise, and be healthy, and then go and eat all this junk food. We have to exercise and stop eating the bad food.
– And stop worrying, and all the other things that lead to the mindsets that do that. I mean it’s complicated. But so are we. And so the point is, there’s some incremental change that can be made at every turn. Now, for me, when I hear this as a conscious consumer, I think, well, if I needed shampoo, it’d be a different piece. But you know what? I’m going to buy shampoo, and shampoo is shampoo across the market, then this influences me to go buy Head and Shoulders. Because now it supportive of values that I think are important to me. And so, to me, that’s a big lever, is then consumers driving other corporations, to be like, “Listen, if you’re not “doing marine waste plastic, “then what are you doing? “Why am I buying your stuff?”
– And you nailed it. If you do that, then what will it’ll tell the other companies, who make shampoo, “We have to play this game, “or we’re going to be left behind.” And that’s the power of the consumer. I think consumers undervalue their tremendous power. Because companies are in the business not of giving consumers what they don’t want, and somehow jamming it down our throats, that’s exceptionally difficult. Maybe they invent things that we didn’t know we want, but want once we see it, anticipate our desire. But the real thing consumer product companies do generally is figure out what we want, and give it to us. And we need to adjust our desires, and watch how quickly the ecosystem will respond. Consumer product companies, and retailers, are mirrors to our desires. We need to change our desire, and vote consciously. We get so hung up about voting with a piece of paper, and like a pen, every four years, for basically choosing between A and B. This is a important decision, don’t get me wrong, but we get so hung up on it, and yet we vote unconsciously with actual money, multiple times a day, and don’t take responsibility over that vote. And that vote is critically, critically important. Someone told me that, if we stop buying, for instance, take an average product, like chewing gum. If the world stopped buying chewing gun, it would take six weeks for the entire gum industry to disappear. Six weeks.
– Bam, gone, choke ’em out.
– [Tom] Done. They’d be bankrupt, all factories closed, supply chains done, retailers would have delisted them, and it wouldn’t exist as an idea anymore. Six weeks to destroy any, I use the word “destroy”, but change. Because what would then the companies like Cadbury or Mars do? They wouldn’t just close their doors. They’d be like, “Look, gum is not the business anymore. “Let’s create something else that consumers want.”
– Move, move, go agile. Yeah, it’s one of the themes that we’re dealing with in the movie that you’re in. Is the supply chain dynamics of using shade-grown cacao, shade-grown, that needs to be grown within a tree canopy. And so there’s a couple of companies that were dealing with, it’s like, if you buy their products, you’re growing the rainforest back, versus going after clearcutting, and destroying the planet with the crappy chocolate that you’re buying–
– Well, I want to point out what you’re saying there, which is important to any listener, is whether you are conscious of what you described or not, if you’re buying the other stuff, you’re actually voting for deforestation and funding it. Whether your conscious of it or not, you’re doing it.’
– And you’re, funding those companies to have lobbyists that are also lobbying your politicians, to drive policy, and drive the world in a direction where, we can’t come from the edge of that cliff. And so, yeah, it’s the most empowering thing, anyone watching this needs to know, is that, look, we’re the ones in the driver’s seat. No is putting a gun to your head and saying, “Swipe your card here.” And so you can choose what you’re doing. Okay, so when we’re looking at this ecosystem here, and we’re running out of time, we have a very short amount of time here. Recycling is great if you need to do it. Upcycling is great. All these things that are there, the linear ones are less good than the circular ones. If I’m listening to this going, “Look, I got kids, they have,” the other day I go to this whole thing with my wife, she gets all these like bags for Valentine’s Day, for all the kids in my kid’s class, and it’s just a bunch of plastic shit. And I’m like, “What is this? “What is this? “Let’s get them a tree.” “Why are we buying this?” And so, what does one need to do, to really start shifting and thinking differently about that type of consumption?
– I think it’s one simple thing. What I don’t want to say is, suddenly become an expert in everything. That’s just way too much work. It’s unrealistic, especially when you’re busy, you have a family. Very difficult. I think, just come up with one simple change. Realize everything you buy will be garbage. If you’re only thinking about waste. Or maybe even take a zoom up from that. Realize everything you’re buying, you are voting for more of that to exist. If you hold that lens, I bet you’d make a lot of different decisions quickly. And you don’t have to become experts at the product. If you’re going to go buy a fur jacket, realize that you just voted for more animals to be butchered, for more fur to exist. Almost think about it, like if you buy one, two more will be made.
– And that’s the world you create.
– And that’s the world you create. And I think if you acknowledge that, it suddenly becomes personal. Cause you can’t hide behind, what you can’t say is, “Oh, if I didn’t buy that fur jacket, “the fur industry would exist anyway.” It would just, just two less jackets would exist. And I think that, it’s a compounding effect too. That’s why it says not one-for-one, it’s almost like one-for-two. So if that’s all you take away, I think you will change so much behavior, so quickly. Cause you’re right. I have a young son, and he came home with a bunch of Valentine’s Day gifts, and they were all shit, that we just basically threw out as soon as he walked in. And he’s two years old, he doesn’t even know what he had. And the answer was, why didn’t people just give away flowers that they picked in the garden? And something along those lines. And the answer is, we need to acknowledge that. I think we will change everything if we just come to terms with that. That we are creating the future, and we can’t point our finger to big companies. We can’t say, “Hey, the beverage industry stopped giving “a sugary soda drinks,” and then I’m drinking my diet soda in the next sip. If we acknowledge that, everything will change fast. And the speed of change will be incredibly quick.
– It’s all just a big dream. It’s all just one big kind of trance, that everyone is under, thinking that the problem’s are bigger than themselves. And that to me–
– [Tom] They’re not.
– They’re not. It’s every single one of us has that power, right here, right now. And looking at what makes the, I’m not an economist, I’m looking at what the economy’s all about in the making of the film, and it’s really just, every single thing that happens in capitalism, are these micro decisions that are happening on the consumption level of spending, that then aggregate, create the world that we live in. And so every single one of those units is a consciousness that has choice in how that money flows, mostly out, but in and out of our lives.
– It does. And it’s contagious. If we start making those changes, our friends will take notice. And things will change.
– Yeah, I love it. Tom, I love what you’re doing. The TerraCycle, I’m looking at the number here. Almost 64 million people that are recycling through your programs right now. Is that 3.8 billion? There’s so much waste being recycled. You guys are donating to charity. But you’re a small for-profit company, using leverage as a business, to go out and use the business as a force for good, and really change behavior. And you’re working with the biggest of the big. You’re working with some of the biggest companies out there. So I really applaud your effort. And I think that, anything we can do to support you. I know we’re out of time. But go get ’em, man. Keep going.
– I appreciate it. Right on, thanks so much. Look forward to seeing you soon.
– Yeah, thank you. Let me know what you think. How are you going to get involved? What are you going to do in your life, right now, today, with your next decision, and then the decisions going on from there, really look at the wake you’re creating in your life, and think, “What can I do to make a difference “to transform the world around me, “starting with me, my family, my community, from there?” Dr. Pedram Shojai, the Urban Monk, I will see you next time. Thank you.