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Dr Tony Wilkins interviews Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky

26/09/2014 1:53 PM

Tom Szaky, presented at News’ Sydney Head Office on the 5th of September 2014 for a 1 Degree Lunchtime Series seminar. Dr Tony Wilkins, Head of Environment at News Corp Australia, interviewed Tom before his presentation, to discuss how he started a company focused on recycling non-recyclable items.

Tony Wilkins (TW): We are pleased to be here with Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of Terracycle, for his talk to our staff on Recycling the Unrecyclable.

Tom Szaky (TS): Thank you for having me.

TW: Can you tell us where the idea for Terracycle came from?

TS: Well the idea came eleven years ago when I was a first year student at Uni, when I was thinking about why garbage existed. I realised that garbage exists because we make things that are very complex, we use a lot of synthetic materials in our products these days, and we consume more than we ever used to consume. When you add those two things together – voila -you have garbage. And so, I started Terracycle as an idea to create a social business that is trying to make things that are non-recyclable recyclable, to take us a little further along the path to waste reduction.

TW: So when did you get the idea of non-recyclable items being the focus area?

TS: Well we saw that when you look at all the waste out there, 20% or so is recyclable, and it’s recyclable because there is economic value in these materials, particularly being aluminium, PET and glass. These things have a lot of companies, and a lot of great companies involved in them. But 80% of all the objects out there have no recycling solutions out there, primarily because the economics don’t make sense. We felt there was this huge gap where there were no businesses looking at recycling traditionally non-recyclables yet there were thousands recycling recyclables, so that’s where we decided to focus.

TW: So in that focus, what was your biggest challenge in getting these non-recyclable items into the recycling stream?

TS: The biggest challenge by far, in making non recyclables recyclable, it is not actually a technical issue. The science of it, while there is a complication in recycling a cigarette butt or chewing gum, is not the hardest part. The challenge is how you get just cigarette butts or just chewing gum…

TW: Contamination!

TS: Right! So it’s all about separation, creating source separated waste streams. The other challenge is that it needs a funding source, because for example if you are going to recycle cigarette butts like we do here in Australia, the value of the recovered plastic is not high enough to offset the cost of the collection or processing. So our whole business is finding stakeholders who are willing to fund the recyclability of these non-recyclables – that could be an individual, a retailer, a brand, even a city! But that’s the big challenge, it’s all about funding.

TW: And we spoke earlier about not contaminating our waste so it can be recycled, how do you get communities involved in reducing contamination?

TS: Well once we are able to secure a funding source – in Australia we have secured brands like Colgate or brands from the Tobacco industry to create these funding platforms – then it’s all about awareness. Because people out there want to recycle non-recyclables, the demand is there, but they need to be aware that these platforms exist. They need to know that there they can join companies like Terracycle and get a free system. So it becomes all about awareness, then once you have awareness it is about making it easier and easier for the community.

TW: Sure, and you are very big in the USA, I was quite surprised – it’s something like $80 million dollars in turnover, it’s a very big company. What brought you to Australia?

TS: We have been realising that garbage is a global issue. A toothbrush is not just non-recyclable here in Australia, it’s not recyclable anywhere in the world. So we started expanding globally, the first country we opened in was in Brazil in 2008, and since then we’ve constantly been opening in new markets. We opened Australia just over a year ago, and my only regret is not coming here sooner. One of the reasons that Australia came when it did was because it’s very far away – we thought it would be difficult to manage. Turns out it was the exact opposite – a very coherent market, people really care about the Environment here. So I wish we came sooner, but it’s been a great success so far.

TW: Well I congratulate you for coming to Australia, and we are going to learn a lot from you here at News!

TS: I look forward to it, thank you.