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Terracycle Redefines Waste


Mere miles from where the turning point in the American Revolution took place (you know, this one:)

Washington's Crossing

and nestled in a tiny nook of Trenton, NJ, is a company that’s revolutionizing the way we look at waste, TerraCycle.

On the surface, they’re that cool company that up-cycles CapriSun packets into Tote Bags and circuit boards into picture frames; however, when you activate your inner sustainabili-geek and look just a bit deeper, their business becomes much less arts and crafts and much more smarty-pants.

At the recent Sustainable Brands ‘13 Conference, (Shameless plug: we came 2nd in their Innovation Open Contest), CEO Tom Szaky introduced us to the genius undercurrent of what they’re doing.  I could use his talk as fodder for a dozen blog posts, but here are the 3 biggest take-aways that I took away from the 20 minutes.

1) What is waste?

Right out of the gate, Tom asks us to define what garbage is. Seriously, think about it. How do you define garbage?

In a life pre-Thread, I would probably say, “Something I don’t have a need for anymore.”

After two years with Thread, my answer is, “Garbage is one of the most powerful resources in our world.”

Terracyle feels similarly. In his presentation, Szaky gets academic on us. First he draws upon his experience in Economics at Princeton (yeah, THAT Princeton) to remind us the fundamentals of supply and demand.


Something that is deemed ‘waste’ has enough of a negative value that the value is in its absence. It’s not worth the space it takes up in our homes, businesses or elsewhere.

He sums it up with a salient point: “Waste is what someone is willing to pay to get rid of.”

His job at TerraCycle (and ours at Thread) is to make value for these materials through upcycling and recycling.

2) Recycling isn’t the solution.

The truth of the matter is that recycling and upcycling are band-aids to a larger issue. I repeat, recycling is the LAST RESORT.

He addresses this as the ‘elephant in the room’. As Thread’s Marketing Guy, I call it, “The dangerous thing we will tell every customer, partner, and fan.”

We create too much waste. In nature, waste is consumed to create new things. In the world we’ve created, there is a surplus of waste. If we work to reduce the production and thus the surplus, there’s much less of a need to reuse and, gulp recycle. Our long term dream is for this transformational shift to happen and for us to pivot to something other than recycling. Zero-waste society, baby!

3) People Want to Make a Difference (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle).

We’ve seen this in Haiti. TerraCycle has seen this in Latin America. Countless other businesses that we have corporate crushes on have seen this work. When you create the means (infrastructure) to help and sprinkle in a dash of incentive (economic or altruistic), people are willing to change their habits and do good.

The immediate effects of cleaner streets and a pocket full of grocery money bring enough value to make waste worth harvesting. The long-term effects of employment and a safer neighborhood are enough to encourage innovation. We’ve already seen the immediate effect of removing 60 million bottles from the streets and canals of Haiti.

I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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