Introducing Tom Szaky, CEO TerraCycle: Becoming Aware

tom-shot.jpgThis is the first post of our latest addition to the 3p team of writer-visionaries — Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, named by Inc. Magazine as the “Coolest Startup in America — The ultimate growth company, built on garbage, run by a kid, loved by investors.” 3p interviewed Tom in August and he will be writing regularly on his experiences as a social entrepreneur and visions for business and technology that leave the world better off right here on TriplePundit.
Everyone experiences those formative “A-ha!” moments when a scene or image strikes us in a profound way. Many spend their lives building beliefs and passions stemming from that very moment. My life’s dream, to champion the triple bottom line business model and eco-capitalism, was inspired by very two similar moments in my formative years. My family left Hungary as political refugees in eighties and after a brief stop in Holland, settled down in Toronto. It was in this environmental progressive city that my first moment occurred. Wandering, as children do, through my family’s apartment building I found a stack of old televisions ready to be thrown away. In Hungary, a TV of any kind was a luxury, so I was taken a back that these perfectly fine TV sets were being discarded simply because they were outdated. I found the wastefulness of this image staggering, that people would freely discard goods or materials that must still have value seemed unfathomable.
The second occurred years later when I moved to America to attend Princeton University. One night my freshman year, as I walked to my dorm, I saw large tubs of cafeteria food being discarded in dumpsters. I thought of all the energy, work, money and raw materials that went into making and cooking that food and how all of that was going to waste. It really shook me! It seemed environmentally harmful, socially careless and incredibly economically wasteful (how much of my tuition went to buying and cooking food that was thrown away!) It was that moment that I knew that garbage was my key to making a difference in my world and that instantly inspired me to find ways to work with waste. Only months later I was digging through the very same dumpsters for food waste to feed to my worms and TerraCycle was born.

What are your seminal moments of social awareness? As a new member of the 3p community, it would be great to hear about other powerful scenes that have had this affect on other people’s lives! So please, whether you have started a business or only patron responsible ones, all of us want to hear your story!

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

6 responses

  1. Tom, it’s fascinating to read about the contrast between Holland and your university experience.
    I have two stories about cleaning products that relate to this, one general and one personal. The overall idea is that we are largely influenced by pop culture and the marketing messages out there that we are taught ever since we are kids.
    The first story is a contrast between China and the US. In China, people mop floors with their I can relate, having seen what it is like in China, and while they are increasingly wasteful, Asians are more likely to get down on their hands on knees and use an old rag to mop the floors, rather than use a Swiffer or a toilet bowl brush that you can eject and flush down the toilet.
    Companies in the US have exchanged the main benefit of “usefulness” for “convenience.”
    Second, there have been studies done that show that people believe that bubbles indicate if something is clean, and if it doesn’t work up a lather on your floor, in your dishes, on your body, then it isn’t doing anything. Actually, Physics tells us that bubbles are mixture of water, air, soap and tension which means we want water waste when we want “clean.”
    Isn’t it strange just how much company marketing messages contribute to general culture and develop common mindsets in people about what is “right” and what is “wrong”?
    We don’t even think of “waste” as a consequence, because companies want us to buy what they produce.

  2. Welcome Tom! I think that it was Ode magazine, with all its stories of people creating solutions where none seemed to exist, that inspired me to dig in, get a green MBA from Presidio, and work to make a difference and inspire others to do so.

  3. Inspiring story…having traveled around some “Third World” developing countries you can’t help but be struck by how much that is thrown away by materially wealthier societies winds up in materially poorer countries and gets reclaimed and reused by people there–a service not only to their society but others as well…unfortunately unsupported by governments and driven by poverty and need.

  4. I think I’ve had a lot of “ah-ha” moments, but one rather grim one was watching a nature video about shark finning as a kid. Large sharks are caught and their dorsal fin cut off while they’re very much alive, then they’re just hurled back into the water to bleed to death. It wasn’t so much the cruelty that bothered me but the totally insane wastefulness of it and the willingness with which these goons went about their labor that blew my mind!!!

  5. Hi Tom, thanks for your inspiring story and welcome to 3P!
    Like Saul, I guess I’ve had a lot of “aha” moments. Unlike many others on the team, I am not formally educated in business and sustainability, being trained as a musician and sound engineer, but I think I owe my desire to do whatever I can to do to help create positive change to my dad.
    Long before any sort of “sustainability movement” my dad worked for the federal government as an environmentalist and environmental resource planner. Trained as a wildlife biologist, he spent his time working within the framework of government to help enforce environmental regulations, prepare environmental impact reports, and help preserve federal lands as wilderness.
    And then there was the 1980’s. Some may not remember how Reagan and his Secretary of Interior James Watt waged a full-on assault on the environment. My dad would not claim it, but the efforts he and those on his team put forth to fight back against Reagan/Watt were heroic.
    My dad’s love of the outdoors and work, from as far back as I can remember (we’re talking the early 60’s), to help safeguard the environment has been my principal inspiration.
    Thanks again for your story Tom, I look forward to learning more from your experience and insight.

  6. Hi Everyone,
    What a resounding and wonderful welcome, thank you, I am very glad to be a part of the 3p Community!
    Clara – I love your juxtaposition of usefulness and convenience. This is one of the major issues with innovation in the CPG world. Manufacturers (and consumers for that matter) only seem interested in making products easier or faster to consume, with no regards to the consequences. Thankfully more and more people are pushing innovation in a more sustainable direction (thus this site!)
    Paul – An old TerraCycle friend! I have come to the right place. Ode is a great magazine and just got a great recommendation from a well educated consumer/writer/movement-leader!
    Thanks to everyone for their personal stories, the more we talk about it the more we can accomplish!

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