A 60 million strong army is growing and could save the world from a sea of waste

Tom Szaky had an idea for a profit-making business and fell into social entrepreneurship. He harnessed the power of social business to build a 60 million strong army of waste collectors to support TerraCycle, a business which turns waste into consumer products. Fergal Byrne finds out how he grew his business and a waste picking army at the same time.

It all started with a simple idea to make an organic fertilizer from worm poo.

Since then Tom Szaky has set TerraCycle, a social business that makes consumer products from waste, on a path to meteoric growth. Today it has annual revenues in excess of $25 million and operates in 26 countries. 

TerraCycle provides free waste collection programs for hard to recycle materials, and turns that waste into affordable green products. It has developed a range of volunteer-led recycling systems that enables people to start groups or “Brigades” and begin collecting a specific type of waste. That might be coffee capsules, cosmetic packaging or cigarette buts. Across the globe TerraCycle has built a brigade of 60 million waste collectors.  

Fergal Byrne talks to Tom Szaky about how he started a waste picking revolution with a social business, and why he wouldn’t dream of setting up a business that didn’t have a social purpose.

Fergal Byrne: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to set up TerraCycle?

Tom Szaky: My first entrepreneurial experience was when I was 14. I started a design company, had a few employees and we would make logos and websites back when the web was really just forming and at that point in time I fell in love with the concept of classic entrepreneurship, the idea that if you have an idea, and especially if you're going to work really hard at it, there's a chance that your dreams can become real.  

When I went to university I was thinking about garbage as an idea and that is how the idea of TerraCycle came up. It started out as a money- making idea to solve the issue of waste. And then what happened was, I fell into being a social entrepreneur.  

I wasn't out there seeking to start a social business but then once I realized the benefit and the power and the fulfilment that social entrepreneurship brings, I really realized how lucky I was for falling into it and would now never start any other kind of business.

FB: What do you see as the main differences between being an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur?

TS: In classical entrepreneurship there's a lot of pay off.  You get the thrill of having your idea become big and real and you of course get the monetary pay off.  In social entrepreneurship you get all that, but you also get the added benefit of purpose and purpose is very, very powerful because it not only can fulfil you in much more meaningful ways than just money can, but it also really fulfils your team and your stakeholders. A lot of things become much easier when purpose is there.

People will work for less compensation, partners do things much faster than they would normally, media comes much easier and even the ability to access senior leaders inside organizations, like getting to a CEO of a major partner, is easier when you have a purpose, than when you don't.

Purpose makes people want to get involved, just for the sake of helping out and furthering the environmental and social goals of the business. A good example is, TerraCycle. Today we have 60 million collectors across 26 countries.  

These are people out there spending a lot of time, a lot of their energy, collecting non-recyclable waste, promoting that, and so on, without ever receiving any compensation from us. They just want to further our purpose, our mission. Conventional business could never move people like that. You wouldn't want to get involved in helping Starbucks open up more coffee shops for free.  

FB: Do you think that social entrepreneurs do enough to really get that message across or take advantage of all of the ways in which it can help their business?

TS: I don't think anyone, even companies like TerraCycle that have been around for 11 years, take full advantage of the power of purpose, because we're still learning about it.  Eleven years into our company we're still discovering new ways to leverage it.  

I think the important thing, if you're a social entrepreneur, is to build your social business, assuming that it doesn't exist at all, that you have to win as a normal business. But then really look for ways that you can use your purpose to create value, where there wouldn't be obvious value in a normal business.

Marketing guru, Seth Godin talks about the idea that there's these tribes that form around your goal and there's huge amounts of value that can be gained from that and the key is constantly exploring and unlocking it. Because social business is a very young idea there's still more to discover out there.  It's very much like Columbus discovering America.  We just discovered the first islands but we don't really know how powerful and inspiring it can be.

FB: You have continued to grow and expand into new areas – how are you doing this?

TS: We start our business question by saying: “We need to come up with a solution for used chewing gum or used cigarettes and what could that be turned into?” What we realized is that the idea that some things are recyclable, like aluminium, paper and glass and everything else is not, has everything to do with economics.  

The value of the aluminium that a recycling facility recovers is more than the cost of collecting and processing it. So we need to work harder to make things that are generally recycled recyclable. We found out we needed to get funding from constituents. Brands, cities, individuals, can help make things recyclable by devoting money or time towards the process, and reduce the cost. That is really what TerraCycle is exploring quite a bit, how do we find more and more groups to pay for the service of making things that are not recyclable, recyclable.