Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle Redefines Green Business

szaky-book.jpgMy book, Revolution in a Bottle, hit the streets this week. It is a quick read that is meant to flow more like a novel, less like a business book. It follows the story of TerraCycle from our beginnings in my dorm room, shoveling maggot filled organic waste to creating products we sold to Wal-Mart and other major big box retailers, getting sued by Scotts and creating “sponsored waste” programs to upcycle branded waste. It also offers insights on how we approach media and pursue new opportunities. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
While it has not always led to the “right” decision, I have learned that I must always trust my gut. Sometimes this has led to hiring people without requisite experience but who have turned out to be gems as they developed their art. In some cases, I’ve opened doors to people and situations that have been problematic, but through each adverse experience, the company grew stronger. As one pathway we were pursuing became blocked or looked less promising, another would always open. As I think over the roller coaster of TerraCycle’s early history, I can see that it would have been impossible to predict or plan how to develop TerraCycle to the place where it stands today. The trick was to be ever vigilant in seeking opportunities, and to be ready to jump on them if they felt right inside and consistent with core mission, even before they could be well thought out. And, I have learned, by picking up the shovel (when we made our first years’ batches of worm poop), to actually working the iron and sewing machine as we made our first prototype upcycled materials and bags, that I could ground an idea in real time, and shortcut speculation about hypotheticals.

My book also comes with the world’s first returnable book cover for upcycling! I worked with a favorite partner of mine, Bear Naked, who makes incredible organic granola, to come up with a way to make my book more environmentally responsible. We decided to print prepaid postage on the inside cover of my book and instruct people to remove the cover fill with used granola bags and return to TerraCycle, free of charge! For every cover returned, Bear Naked is donating 1 dollar to the Arbor Day Foundation to a plant a tree. Since my book is printed on 100% post-consumer paper, our hope is with enough returns we can confidently say that my book help plant more trees than it helped cut down!
I’m curious. How much do you rely on rational and objective criteria in making a decision, vs gut feel and intuition? For me, it’s a combination of both, but I’m heavy into feeling my way to a decision. Also, while I can’t say it’s right for everyone, for me, jumping in and getting my hands dirty (literally), has worked well. I’d be pleased to know your thoughts and experience. If you do read my book, I hope you enjoy it; I’ll be interested in your reactions, which you can post here.

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

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