Tom Szaky: Thinking In and Outside the Wrapper

When you think of socially responsible companies, Mars, the candy-focused food company is not likely to be the first one that comes to mind. And yet, perhaps it will, as they have recently made two monumental commitments, with action and money to back it up. They encompass both what’s in and outside the wrapper.

100 million tons of sustainably certified cocoa bean purchases by 2020 sounds impressive, but especially so when it’s with $10+ million a year being spent to enable the right conditions for there to be enough supply for such a goal. And this is not just for some niche candy lines, but all chocolate used in Mars products.

UTZ Certified is who they’re working with on this initiative. While not as well known by you and I as, say, TransfairUSA, their work is of no less substance. Along with source sustainability certification and verification of supportive workplace practices, they actively reach out to farmers and those in the surrounding communities the viability of and market for sustainably grown cocoa.

With the inclusion of a large player such as Mars, they could make the case to farmers with increasing confidence. As more farmers choose sustainable methods, it will also have the ripple of a greater supply for other current and yet-to-come chocolate brands.

But how I really know that Mars isn’t just putting on a superficial show is the partnership they recently made with Terracycle. We’ve made major deals with the big boys before, Kraft, Nabisco, Fritos among them, but this is our largest agreement yet, encompassing 19 candy brands, 3 lines of cat and dog food, plus Uncle Ben’s, Seeds of Change and Flavia.

Just the candy lines alone cover such a breadth of brands, it means that for the majority of people in North America, a good number of popular brands they already consume will now be able to go somewhere else other then the trash, a huge win for all involved.

This deal is also unique in that it’s the largest agreement we’ve yet made to take post industrial waste as well. Post industrial in this case being wrappers and packaging that are misprints, end runs, and other otherwise no longer needed packaging (think old designs made redundant when they change the label)

How much will this mean? 3000 tons in the first year alone. 3000 tons! I’ve frequently dealt in large quantities in the past, but even I have a bit of trouble fathoming this. That this will be made into products with minimal processing, versus being a source of “waste to energy” (read: burnt for power) is going to have an enormous impact.

While Mars is, like any company, not perfect when it comes to sustainability/social practices, their strides forward, and the resulting impact surrounding them are, in my mind, worthy of support. How could they do better? What other companies could follow their example of paying attention to both what people most notice (the product) and what they may not have considered open for improvement or capable of being sustainably handled/reused (the packaging)?

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

2 responses

  1. While I’d like to be a fan of TerraCycle, I actually wonder how much material is really diverted from the landfill.

    The old pattern was raw material -> product -> Landfill.

    Isn’t the TerraCycle pattern: raw material -> product -> collection and reprocess -> product 2 -> Landfill?

  2. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for your comment. We at TerraCycle appreciate your concerns and thoughts. But don’t worry! TerraCycle actually accepts all of its old products back from consumers. For example if a student is done with one of our Drink Pouch pencil cases he can send it back with the other used pouches to be processed again. Highly damaged material is put into a new process we are developing to make green building materials from even the most damaged packaging. So the TC pattern is actually: raw material > product > collect and reprocess > product 2 > collect and reprocess > green building materials or recycled plastic.

    Will that material eventually find its way to a landfill? Probably. But only after 100’s or 1000’s of uses as opposed to 1.

    Is the system perfect? Probably not. But an independent lifecycle analysis has shown our upcycled products have an 80% smaller footprint than products made from virgin materials. So we are simply using waste material to replace the need for virgin materials. While we have no allusions this system is perfect, let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Certainly its better for that packaging to be reused several times before it goes to the landfill, right?


Leave a Reply