Written by Liz Holden
TerraCycle is on top of the world. The company, founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky in his Princeton dorm room, now operates in 20 countries across the world and runs programs in cities across the U.S., with 60 million people now participating in the company’s programs. The company even stars in its own documentary TV show, Human Resources, which airs on Pivot.
TerraCycle’s mission is “to eliminate the idea of waste.” The company collects hard-to-recycle products and eliminates them from the waste stream through recycling, upcycling and reuse. TerraCycle will collect almost any kind of waste, from protective eyewear to snack bags; its Zero Waste Box Collection Programs page encompasses products from “action figures” to “writing utensils.” The company made headlines in 2014 when it implemented the first cigarette waste recycling program in cities across the U.S.
The company has grown every year based on global sales, and in 2011, ICIC named TerraCycle to the Inner City 100 list of the fastest-growing inner city firms in the U.S. But when Szaky entered ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) program in 2009, he was looking to raise capital for his company. “ICIC helped us to connect to investors… It also helped us to raise capital,” Szaky told ICIC recently. TerraCycle now has 125 employees and its revenues increased every year between 2010 and 2015, according to a fact sheet on the company’s website. TerraCycle’s corporate partners include Kraft Foods, L’Oreal, Tom’s of Maine and 3M.
TerraCycle’s inner city location has shaped the company’s identity from the beginning. Szaky says that when he chose to locate TerraCycle in inner city Trenton, New Jersey, the decision was based mostly on cost – the area was affordable and close to Princeton. But the company’s leadership soon realized that Trenton offered advantages beyond cost, including its location and its culture. As TerraCycle has expanded, its leadership has looked to locate its satellite offices in similar inner city neighborhoods across the world. Despite its global reach, TerraCycle is still an active presence in Trenton, supporting local arts and other causes. Szaky says there are no real disadvantages to the company’s location. “Trenton is incredible because (of its proximity to) talent from New York to Philadelphia… At this point we’d never leave.”
To Szaky, a major advantage of his participation in ICCC was the opportunity to meet other inner city business owners, to share his experiences and stories and to learn of the issues other inner city CEOs were facing. He had the opportunity to “pay it forward” several years later at the 2013 Inner City 100 Conference and Awards, where he gave a keynote address to another group representing fast-growing inner city businesses.
Connections to other companies and institutions have been crucial to the growth of TerraCycle, whose largest customer base consists of municipalities, factories, retailers, consumer product companies and small businesses. According to Szaky, the key has been to help those stakeholders find ways to fulfill their own goals and missions through TerraCycle’s platform. “It’s not about going to a company and saying you should do this because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will help you to fulfill your goals and do the right thing.”
And for Szaky, environmental impact and social impact have gone hand in hand. TerraCycle’s environmental impact has been significant – the company now collects millions of pounds of waste every month. Just as impactful has been its social contribution in Trenton and beyond. The company has donated over $15 million to charities and runs a large global internship program. “We always look at how we can add a social component to what we do,” Szaky said, later adding, “We want to show you can make money by doing good.”