The Five Takeaways of Waste: Tom Szaky

The words “waste” and “garbage” have always had such negative connotations.  “You’re a waste of space.”  Schoolyard taunts about smelling like a garbage picker.  The phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which refers to something made with low quality materials that will also yield a low quality final product.

Tom Szaky, the 28 year old CEO of Terracycle, sees waste differently.  While he has brought garbage into his company, it seems that the outputs have been nothing short of valuable.  Szaky started Terracycle as a 19 year old Princeton student.  His idea?  Taking food waste from Princeton’s cafeterias, having worms digest it, and producing fertilizer on the other end.  The products were contained in old soda bottles.  After nearly going broke, he was helped out by an investor, which led to the company getting orders into two major retailers.

The worm poop became so popular that even some of the big guys began to feel threatened.  Terracycle was sued by Scotts Miracle Gro in 2007, of which Terracycle won the lawsuit.  In recent years, Terracycle has been focusing on aggregating various forms of waste from consumer packaged goods companies as raw materials, and selling them to different manufacturers to be upcycled.  Items such as juice pouches have been turned into bags, wrappers have been turned into kites, and the company has even been considering what product to turn cigarette butts into.

“There is no waste that can’t be turned into something else useful,” says Szaky.

Below, Szaky provides his five takeaways of waste.

1.  Waste doesn’t exist in nature.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste.  Let’s take leaves for example – if a leaf fell off the tree, it would fall on to the ground.  Provided that an animal or insect didn’t eat it immediately, the leaf would eventually biodegrade and provide nutrients for the soil, which would then in turn provide nutrients for the tree.  In that whole spiel, everything had a use, and there was no waste.  Contrast that with something like a takeout container.  It would be manufactured, sent to a restaurant, where you use it to take away your dinner for the evening.  Then, depending on the type of plastic it was, it would be thrown away or recycled.  In the throwaway scenario, the waste would be created immediately, perhaps left sitting in a landfill for thousands and thousands of years.  In the recycling scenario, this product would be recycled and recycled until the fibres were too short, and that in turn would turn into waste to be thrown into a landfill.

2.  Waste is something that has only emerged in the past 100 years.

“Waste is something that man created over the last 100 years – with the development of complex polymers, it created something that nature can’t deal with,” explains Szaky.

This explains things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and landfills.

“Excess consumption is also to blame – we consume more than we need to.  100% of waste can be attributed to the fact that we buy too much stuff.  By no means am I anti-consumption, and it will never go away – but we have to start buying more expensive, durable things,” suggests Szaky.

3.  Waste is the only commodity that has negative value.

“Waste is the only thing that we pay people to get rid of.  Why are you paying for something that you have to buy and then pay to haul away?  It makes no sense.  For example, why not turn your yogurt tub into a planting pot?” suggests Szaky.

4.  Ninety-nine percent of what consumers buy gets thrown away right away.

In addition to finding ways to reduce or reuse, what consumers buy gets thrown away very soon after its purchase.  Let’s use a pen for example.  The pen comes in a cardboard backed plastic container, which is thrown out.  You use the pen on paper.  The pen runs out of ink, and then the whole thing is thrown away.

There was also the waste that went into creating the product.  Szaky provides a sobering stat:

“For every pound of garbage, there was 60 pounds of waste used to make it.”

5.  Waste is riddled with systemic issues.

“The first problem with waste is the cultural issue of consuming more than we need to,” he explains.

“Second, recycling is fragmented.  There isn’t a Wal-Mart of recycling – garbage is mixed together, and very few waste streams are collected,” Szaky says.

“There also isn’t a collection system.  It is so fragmented that usually the lowest common denominator, or the lowest value items, aren’t collected,” he says.

“There is also a commoditized marketplace for waste.  For example, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic, because among other reasons, the demand is higher.  Recycling facilities permanently closed their doors when plastic prices dropped and petroleum went cheap,” explains Szaky.

With capacity reduced, this doesn’t help in the long term sustainability of waste facilities, who depend on revenues for selling the waste they have collected.

“And lastly the incentives to reduce waste are not there – why can’t we do in the US what governments in Europe or countries like Turkey are doing – a packaging tax.  Why not try it here?”

Find out more information about Tom Szaky at Terracycle, Garbage Moguls, and through his book, Revolution in a Bottle.

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