Please tell us about the first steps towards your company, how and when did you start? And what is your vision regarding the future for your company?
When I got the idea for TerraCycle as a college freshman at Princeton University in 2001, our original business model was vermicomposting (converting garbage into worm poop) and selling the resulting fertilizer. Since we didn't have the money for new ones, we went through recycling bins looking for used soda bottles for packaging.
To find a larger supply of used bottles, we started a national collection program, which was the precursor for our current free collection programs. We no longer produce fertilizer and have moved into finding recycling solutions for some of the world’s toughest garbage problems. TerraCycle has proven that everything is technically recyclable and has developed solutions for nearly every waste stream you can think of– drink pouches, used toothbrushes and cigarette butts, even dirty diapers.
While recycling is an important aspect of reducing waste and conserving resources, I will be the first to say that it is only a temporary fix for systemic issue that is present: the culture of overconsumption and disposability. We need to move away from buying disposable, single-use items, which are only useful once, then end up in the trash.
I envision a future where TerraCycle provides solutions for today’s disposable life. Just as we have proved that nothing is beyond recycling, we hope to prove that conscious consumption doesn’t have to sacrifice affordability or convenience. We want to help create a world where consumers get the absolute most out of their products, with less waste.
How do you see the future of sustainability in a few years from now?
I think in the next few years we are going to see a drastic shift in the way people buy and consume products. Existing business models will accommodate more sustainable design principles, taking lead from the past by using highly recyclable or durable materials, and viewing products as valuable. This will require a huge overhaul of the production and consumption system as it is currently.
Good news is, we are reaching a point where individuals and businesses understand the importance of caring about the environment and making responsible choices. In other words, sustainability is finally starting to be “cool,” and it’s very exciting, as this will allow for creativity and innovation to solve the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
What was the motivator behind becoming eco-conscious about life?
Problem solving. Eliminating the idea of waste is a problem to be solved, and I was always fascinated by solving problems and I wanted to make sure my business had purpose.
For example, “doing the right thing” is a great reason to be eco-conscious, but it needs to be profitable for business and work for consumers, who are now used to the affordable conveniences the market has to offer. Figuring out what motivates people, and unlocking that knowledge to incentivize them to partake in sustainable activities, has allowed us to design solutions that work in modern life.
Who is your biggest inspiration towards sustainability?
Mother Nature. It is important to realize that what we consider waste does not even exist in the natural world, where nothing goes to waste. For example, a fox’s droppings help a berry bush grow, a bird will eat those berries, and eventually the bird may end up becoming a meal for the fox. Any “waste” generated in nature is simply a resource to be used by another organism – nature is a truly closed-loop system.
Our recycling solutions and sustainability platforms look to mimic the activities of nature in an unnatural world.
What advice would you give someone who is starting up a sustainable business?
Many entrepreneurs starting sustainable businesses fall into what I would call the “do-good” space; their business model hinges on the idea that consumers will give them money for a product or service simply because it is the right thing to do. But that’s not enough.
In addition to cost, performance and credibility are prohibitive barriers to any purchase. Standard marketing says that functional, emotional, and social benefits are types of values consumers look for when buying a product. To be successful, consumers must see sustainable products or services as comparable or exceeding standard market products in one, or ideally all, of these areas.
Also, when cash comes with strings attached, sometimes it's not worth it, especially for a mission-based business. For example, I turned down $1-million from investors because it would mean toning down the environmental aspects of the business, replacing the staff that got us to that point, and relegating me to a purely aesthetic role. Taking the hard road early on ultimately made for better learnings and more creativity, which worked out for us in the long run.
How do you see the future if we don’t make a conscious movement?
By now, we’re all familiar with the projection that we’ll see more plastics than fish in the ocean if things don’t change. Every day, a new article about how microplastics are found in our water, our food and what should be the most pristine places on earth reminds us of the severity of the world’s waste problem, and how it affects us not tomorrow, but today.
We can already see what our future will look like by looking at the developing countries with no waste management systems. Many of us don’t think twice about it because all of this is happening so far away, but if we don’t make a radical change, this may be our reality here at home.
Climate change, severe weather events, resource insecurity, and waste—it’s all here today. If we don’t make a conscious effort to change course, the future will be dire.
If you could summarize in one sentence your ethos, what would it be?
Embed purpose into everything you do—not just because it is the right thing to do, but because you will go much further and faster than you have ever imagined.