Princeton graduate turns trash into riches

Recycling company TerraCycle fills its offices in Trenton will materials such as plastic bottles, gas tanks and wine corks. The company strives to make a difference in the way people recycle and dispose of waste.

By Lauren Lavelle

The drive down New York Avenue in Trenton is like any other drive down the back roads of one of Rider’s neighboring towns.

Old, abandoned body shops line the streets and people linger, having conversations on front stoops.

At the end of New York Avenue sits TerraCycle, a recycling company dedicated to making the earth a cleaner place by finding sustainable solutions for everyday products.

The rectangular green building houses the company’s global headquarters and contains the history of the business from its establishment in 2001.

Sixteen years ago, a then-Princeton University freshman Tom Szaky, the founder of TerraCycle, had one goal in mind: to eliminate the earth’s waste in a natural way.

A couple of maxed out credit cards and empty savings accounts later, Szaky was running his very own worm poop conversion unit, feeding rotting food from Princeton’s cafeterias to worms, producing a natural fertilizer for plants.

While many investors waved off Szaky’s attempts to better the environment, major retailers like Walmart, The Home Depot and Target, soon got wind of Szaky’s products and began showing interest in partnerships.

Szaky decided to expand his growing business and tackle the major waste issues that had been ruining the planet for decades.

Now, nearly 16 years after completing his initial goal, Szaky’s recycling company has expanded globally with offices in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, England, Australia and Japan.

“Our mission is getting people to think differently about waste,” said Lauren Taylor, the global director of communication for TerraCycle. “You should be able to look at something and say, ‘What can I do with this?’”

Taylor has been working with TerraCycle for almost nine years.

“I was interested in recycling and the environment before but, here, it’s impossible not to be,” she said. “We all appreciate that we’re at a company that’s trying to make a difference and find solutions for large problems.”

Beyond an open garage is a courtyard beaming with vibrant color and recycled goods.

“This courtyard was pretty nasty when I started here,” Taylor said, stepping onto the green grass past an old car covered in spray paint. “Our design team took care of it five or six years ago and created this. It’s still pretty funky.”

She opened a graffiti-ridden door and stepped into a design studio riddled with plastic bottles, cans, fabric strips and other pieces of garbage hanging from the ceiling, sitting on the floor and propped against the walls.

TerraCycle’s design team worked to deck out every TerraCycle office with upcycled materials ranging from walls clad in tin foil to glass tables supported by empty gas tanks.

The design team also works closely with the company’s brand partners, providing them with quirky sculptures and products upon request.

These sculptures can include bar stools made from Colgate tubes or a nine-foot palm tree made of Garnier shampoo bottles, according to chief design junkie Tiffany Threadgould.

Along with TerraCycle’s unique design process, the method of making items recyclable is a significant part of the company’s overall function.

“Ninety-eight percent of what we do is take the material we collect and separate it into different components if we have to,” Taylor said. “Then we take what we bring in and turn it into a plastic. It gets shredded, cleaned and melted into plastic pellets and then sold to manufacturers who want to use recycled plastic in their products.”

TerraCycle’s newest venture involves converting washed-up beach plastic into Head & Shoulders shampoo and conditioner bottles.

“We’ve partnered with Procter & Gamble and SUEZ in Europe to collect plastic off of beaches, clean it, process it and incorporate it into new plastic bottles,” said Rick Zultner, director of process and product development for TerraCycle. “They are going from litter to garbage, and we are trying to go from litter to recycling, so we had to put in extra work.”

Aside from its grayish hue, the bottle looks exactly the same as an ordinary shampoo bottle.

“If you know Head & Shoulders as a brand, generally, white is the color of cleanliness,” he said. “But, if you look at photos of beach collections, the stuff on beaches is not usually white and clear. It’s a mixture of everything.”

Overall, Taylor is proud of the work Szaky’s goal has accomplished and feels anyone can make an impact if they put in the effort.

“Our CEO always says, ‘Start small,’” she said. “You don’t have to overhaul your life or make some big massive change. Start small and a lot of small changes make a big difference.”

 

Printed in the 10/25/17 edition.

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