“Upcycling” visionary Tom Szaky to speak at WCSU
Building a business from raw materials no one else wants
DANBURY, CONN. — Tom Szaky possesses all the usual entrepreneurial traits — obsessive, innovative, smart — but he works in a business that few others do, and in the process he is creating a new intersection of industry, recycling and even art.
Szaky’s company, TerraCycle, makes money by reusing products that are normally not recycled, but instead are thrown away and later buried, incinerated or left by the side of the road, including items like potato chip bags and cigarette butts. He also collects the material in a unique way: paying schools and other organizations to gather the items for pickup by TerraCycle.
Szaky is presenting the Macricostas Entrepreneurship Lecture at Western Connecticut State University at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in the Veronica Hagman Concert Hall of the Visual and Performing Arts Center, 43 Lake Ave. Extension, Danbury. Seating is limited so attendees should reserve free tickets at www.wcsu.edu/newsevents/Tom-Szaky-Lecture.asp.
The TerraCycle business plan has evolved since Szaky founded the company in 2002, when he dropped out of Princeton to concentrate full-time on making plant fertilizer out of worm droppings. His first break came when Home Depot and Walmart agreed to sell the liquefied “worm poop,” which is packaged in reused 20-ounce soda bottles. TerraCycle continues to sell that product and has expanded its mission to envision a world with zero consumer waste. As Szaky says, people called him crazy.
“TerraCycle tries to bring solutions to garbage where there are no solutions currently,” Szaky says. “As a consumer, your only choice is to throw it out, so we give special collection platforms and then we have really high-end solutions to turn them into new things.”
Current products include composters, clocks made from circuit boards, totes and scrapbooks decorated with potato chip bags, bicycle picture frames, and much more. TerraCycle is now a $15 million a year business with operations in 23 countries.
The promotion of art is one of Szaky’s motivators, and each year TerraCycle sponsors the Jersey Fresh Jam, which features graffiti artists giving TerraCycle’s headquarters — and dozens of other buildings in Trenton, New Jersey, a fresh look, often with a graffiti theme. That’s because the candy wrappers, bottles and plastic bags TerraCycle collects become ephemeral instead of permanent marks on the landscape — just as graffiti is intended to be.
Szaky says: “Having color, energy, openness and just free flow of thought makes everything work better compared to, imagine, the gray cubicles many people know.”
Szaky, now 31, was born in Budapest, Hungary. His family emigrated as political refuguees to the Netherlands and eventually to Toronto before he entered Princeton.
Today, he points out that it was difficult to preserve his vision and continue to build on his original idea.
“When I was younger, part of the challenge of having this crazy, unheard-of idea taken seriously was that I was also young,” Szaky says. “When people wanted to tweak my idea, I either insisted on keeping my plan for an eco-friendly company, or I went and followed my own path. It worked, and now that I have more experience under my belt and credibility, it’s not so much a problem.”
One of Szaky’s business innovations, which he discusses in his lecture, is TerraCycle’s “negative-cost marketing” department. Szaky says that by earning publicity in a variety of traditional and unique ways, the cost of his marketing department is more than paid for.
In addition to the more than 20 media mentions the company earns every day, Szaky has published two books, “Revolution in a Bottle,” in 2009, and “Outsmart Waste” in 2014. The first season of TerraCycle’s reality show aired on the National Geographic Channel in 2010. The second season was shown in 2014 on Participant Media’s Pivot TV cable network.
In 2006, Inc. Magazine named TerraCycle “The Coolest Little Start-Up in America” and that same year Szaky was named the No. 1 CEO in America Under 30. In 2010, TerraCycle was named the No. 288 fastest-growing privately held company in America by Inc. Magazine’s annual listing, the Inc. 500. In 2013, Szaky was named a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year.
Szaky’s lecture is made possible by a gift from the Macricostas Family Foundation, which underwrites the Macricostas Entrepreneur of the Year program.
For more information, call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
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