Most of the things in your room right now will eventually become garbage. That’s the simple idea that in 2001 drove college freshman Tom Szaky to launch Terracycle, a company that collects waste and converts it into new products. For example, Skittles wrappers are combined to become a kite, while Honest Tea containers become a laptop case.
His unusual concept has turned Terracycle into a $16 million company with roughly 100 employees at its Trenton, N.J., headquarters.
EL: How did it all begin?
Szaky: We started by producing liquid worm poop in used soda bottles, because my friends were using worm poop on their plants as an organic fertilizer. That was the beginning of making products out of garbage.
Waste is a commodity of nature. Everything ends as garbage. Most things in your room right now will be in a landfill at some point—everything. It’s also very valuable. We pay people to get rid of it. So we should be able to look at ways to create value out of waste.
EL: As a business that hinges on an innovative concept, I’m guessing you value an innovative team. How do you promote innovation in the workplace?
Szaky: We’re a very open environment. We try to work as much as a team as possible. Our culture is conducive to letting anyone who has a product idea make something out of that idea. I focus less on asking people to be creative, and more on making sure they can do something with that creativity. I do that by not introducing much of a hierarchy and by making it easy to share ideas.
EL: According to The New York Times, 2010 was the first year you produced a profit—though you’ve had a high growth rate from the start. How aggressive have you been about growth and innovation?
Szaky: Right now is the time for innovation. Everyone has been freaked out because of the economy, and they’ve been looking for ways to cut back. If you can grow and innovate in this market, there’s a silver lining: You’ll be in a better position overall. Most people will tell you to hunker down, but this is an opportunity to do the opposite.
EL: As a leader, how do you help your team persevere when they run into obstacles?
Szaky: My key advice to a team is to lay out a problem, step by step. Otherwise it can overwhelm you, and you’ll feel like ripping your hair out. I might suggest that everyone take on one piece of the problem.
Everything is solvable as long as you dissect it.
EL: What inspires you?
Szaky: All the inspiration I need comes from looking into a garbage bin. I just see that the idea of waste is the most untapped market in America.
How much should you tell employees?
At Terracycle, employees see a “master report” every two weeks, highlighting every department’s work.
“I review each report and write detailed feedback to each department ... and send that feedback to every employee,” Tom Szaky tells The New York Times.
The benefits are “astronomical.” And key issues surface much faster.