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Terracycle CEO to You: Please Tear the Cover Off My Book

| Wednesday April 15th, 2009 | 4 Comments

Though I did do an April Fool’s story about Terracycle’s merging with Scotts Miracle Gro that got several alarmed phone calls/emails there, I promise this interview with their CEO and book author Tom Szaky is genuine. Enjoy.

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revolution%20in%20a%20bottle.jpgIt’s not often that the author of a book tells you he wants more people tearing off the cover, but that’s just what Tom Szaky, CEO of Terracycle and author of Revolution In A Bottle, wants. This surprisingly has not been well covered in reviews says Szaky. It’s a bit hard to miss, with orange ink inside drawing your attention to what turns out to be a makeshift envelope when turned inside out. Then you send back Bear Naked Granola packaging, to be made into kites and umbrellas.
It’s a perfect example of Terracycle’s driving motivation – making the making of more planet friendly choices simple and easy to do, at an identical or cheaper price then the toxic conventional options.
The origin stories of startups are frequently interesting, but it’s safe to say that few business ideas were started because of marijuana. At least not the cultivation of it. Legally. But it was exactly this, specifically a plant named Marley, that Terracycle founder Tom Szaky witnessed first hand the effectiveness of worm based compost, or “woom poop” as he (in)famously refers to it.
Szaky, an accidental green business superhero as it turns out, clearly has a knack for telling memorable, effective stories, and as he shares in his advice to would be eco entrepreneurs, it’s a large part of what’s carried Terracycle so far. As is staying firm to seeing things in a different, sometimes unpopular way.


For instance, they threw aside the popular wisdom of starting small, selling to independent stores, building up, going national, and avoiding big box stores, who would grind your price into the ground. With no way yet to actually follow through on large scale orders, they aimed for big box stores right from the start. Why?
They reach the majority of US population, and Szaky’s desire is to reach the mainstream, where they are, with products that don’t require a green interest, or even a willingness to pay more for a better product.
It was Szaky’s dismissal of independent stores in his book that got me wondering, this man with so many innovative ideas, what does he think local businesses can do to become more vital, viable? So an interview was arranged. His answer:

Become a Wal Mart of small retailers. What I mean by that is to have all small retailers band together, not just from a distribution group perspective, but really get all their back ends – their ordering, what products they choose, completely standardized down so that it creates some efficiencies. Now if you do that, you do sacrifice a little bit of that independent spirit.
The other thing to do is to not try to compete with Wal-Mart, Home Depot and these other places, and to only sell products they don’t. Or to go extreme on the customer service. Not just have a friendly guy who everyone knows from the neighborhood, but it’s even more. It’s free delivery, it’s we’ll come to your home, tell you what you need, we’ll install it. If the independent retailer is going to survive, they have to differentiate…trying to stay alive in the current model is suicide.

Now you may wonder how Szaky interacts with his personal waste, being the CEO of a company that focuses on creating products almost entirely out of waste. His answer surprises, yet is totally in line with who they are as a company.

I would actually consider myself normal in that sense. I do the same as my neighbors do. With that said, I do have a compost pile, but I don’t have a hybrid…yet. I consider myself very much…average. And I do that consciously because I want to change the average person, the Wal-Mart shopper if you will. That’s the most important piece to me.
I’m not here as much to serve the deep green people, though I hope they like our products. It’s the uneducated, not wealthy, middle American person who doesn’t know about the environment, and may not even care. That’s the lifestyle I want to bring solutions to. because if anything can change, it’s that group of people who really are America.

Asked what he does with his waste while traveling, Szaky again makes a point to do what’s within the norm. But in typical Terracycle fashion, he is creating a solution for airports that will also provide them material for products: Collection points for multiple types of waste, much of it off the recycling radar, now being diverted from the landfill, going to good (re)use. Coming in 2010, he says.
Our interview and the book could provide material for 5 articles, but I want to turn this around and engage you. I asked how Triple Pundit readers could help Terracycle, and here’s what he said: “What can we do with these waste streams: One is VHS tapes, tape cassettes, and the other is cosmetic packaging, Estee Lauder for instance.”
So readers, what do you think they could make with these things? Who knows, you may be responsible for the diversion of millions of tons of waste. Comment below.
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media. Who he has and wants to work with includes consumer, media, clean tech, NGOs, social ventures, and museums.


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