Terracycle: 27-Year-Old Turns Stinky Trash into Serious Cash

terracycleThere's an old saying that goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

Nobody has proved that more true than Tom Szaky.

Szaky went from being a political refugee to a Princeton college student to the head of a rapidly growing company called TerraCycle, an "upcycling" company that turns garbage into new products. And he's only 27 years old.

His company is at the forefront of turning trash into treasure, of making people more environmentally aware, and of using recycling as a way of helping society. His latest project is called The Brigades, a collaboration with major companies to get people to recycle and help raise money for worthwhile causes such as public schools and non-profit organizations.

One of those Brigades is called the Drink Pouch Brigade. Working with Kraft Foods, the maker of Capri Sun, groups that join the brigade and send in used Capri Sun drink pouches can earn 2 cents per pouch. Capri Sun just announced that it has donated a total of $1 million to schools across the country through the program. TerraCycle takes the used pouches and turns them into tote bags they sell.

From waste to worm poop

I asked Szaky how he first got interested in recycling, and he said it went back to the days when his family fled Hungary and wound up in Toronto.

"I was first struck by waste as a business opportunity as a young child" he said. "One day I was exploring the apartment building we moved into when I found a pile of older TVs. In Hungary almost no one I knew had a television, so this pile of them in the basement seemed unreal. I asked the building manager what they were doing there and he told me they were trash. I was floored. Even at age 8 I thought, "someone could make a fortune selling these TVs in Hungary."

The same thing struck him when he was a freshman at Princeton. Seeing a lot of food on campus being thrown out, he used the garbage to feed worms and create a potent fertilizer from worm compost, or, as it became known later, Worm Poop.

"When I first learned about composting with worms I knew my life's work was laid out in front of me," he said. "Turning 'waste material' into commodities or consumer products."

Starting a company and doing good for society

Szaky wound up dropping out of college to devote his full attention to TerraCycle and expanded beyond the worm fertilizer business. He hit it big in 2004 when he sold his product to both Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Then he turned his attention to an idea called Sponsored Waste and the Brigade program. I asked him how he came up with the idea.

"I guess I would point to the Bottle Bill," he said. "In states where there is not a lot of municipal curbside recycling, the government realized having an incentive to return bottles and cans would motivate people to actually collect and drop off the used packaging, We are leveraging that same type of incentive to get people involved at the local level. Plus, schools need money now more than ever, and if we can help reduce landfill proliferation, resource loss and help fund schools all with one simple program -- it was a no-brainer really."

Out to change the world

The journey Szaky took from Hungary to the United States was an amazing and sometimes difficult one, but he never had any doubt that he would be successful.

"Honestly, I always viewed myself as running a world changing business one day," he said. "That was a boyhood dream for sure. Did I ever think that TerraCycle would become what it has? No. When we started we were a fertilizer business; now we have the model, structure and drive to become the world's recycler."

Besides the business, Tom has written a well regarded book about his company called 'Revolution in a Bottle,' and TerraCycle is being featured in a reality show on the National Geographic Channel called 'Garbage Moguls.'

I asked him what advice he has for anyone with a great idea who wants to turn it into something as successful as TerraCycle.

"Write up a really good business plan," he said. "This will help you prioritize, organize and understand what you need to accomplish and in what order. Then down the road it will help you get investors."

"But the best advice I can give is just go for it! Take the chance, because you'll never know unless you try, and the worse you can do is fail. You can always go back to school or get a 'real job.'"

Watch inteviews with Tom Szaky on 'Good Morning America' and 'The Oprah Winfrey Show':

Read Full Story