Like Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly, Tom Szaky has become the matchmaker for consumer goods brands looking to improve their image and recycle packaging from snack food wrappers, drink pouches, toilet tissue, baby diapers and plastic tape dispensers.
From a standing start just over two years ago, Szaky, who is CEO of TerraCycle Inc., has put together an impressive collection of recycling brigades, which arrange and put into place volunteer collection systems that have recycled nearly 1.3 billion pieces of material that otherwise would have gone to landfills.
That's quite a switch from the company's first seven years, when TerraCycle largely sold worm-based plant food fertilizers at retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
Now, there are 19 sponsored recycling brigades that involve roughly 25 brand owners with drink punches, candy wrappers and snack chip bags making up the three biggest collection programs.
A single brand, such as Frito-Lay, can sponsor a program, but all types of snack chip bags can be collected.
With momentum rapidly building, both the number of brigades and corporate brand sponsors will double in 2010, Szaky said.
We will have roughly $10 million in funding for these brigades from brand owners in 2010, he said in a phone interview in early December. We are launching about 20 more brigades in the U.S. That will increase the number of major corporations involved to about 50.
That builds on the flurry of activity in the past two months, as TerraCycle inked its first deal in Canada, reached partnerships with two different manufacturers to turn snack chip bags and candy wrappers into speakers and garbage cans, and put together a deal with 3M Co. to recycle the core and plastic tape dispensers from 3M's Scotch brand plastic tape dispensers.
Unlike its other brigades, though, the 3M tape dispensers and cores will be returned to their maker for reuse.
Traditionally, we have taken packaging and turned it into other products, so [this] is an exciting new opportunity for us, Szaky said. He said one or two similar arrangements will be announced in the next four to eight weeks.
Consumers are eager to participate and brands are eager to recycle their waste packaging, he said. Before this, consumers had no choice but to throw [these things] out and that is a big problem for brand owners. This creates a paradigm shift for brand owners where you can recycle. That is why they exist.
Under the program, 2 cents is donated to the charity of the collecting group's choice for each item recycled, with either TerraCycle or the brand sponsor making that donation, or the two jointly sharing the cost.
TerraCycle finds the collection partners, arranges for transportation and develops ways to turn the recycled materials into products at its corporate headquarters in Trenton, N.J., that also houses equipment the company uses to develop end products that can be made from the recycled materials.
We collect the garbage, clean it, store it and manage the supply chain to turn the recycled packaging into a product, said Szaky, whose company works with converters to create the products made from recycled content.
TerraCycle's manufacturing partners make speakers, garbage cans, picture frames, backpacks, reusable totes, pencil cases, clocks, coasters and a variety of other products.
TerraCycle is expanding its efforts globally. It's already in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, and will expand into Mexico in January and into Holland, France and Germany sometime later in 2010.
Although the donations to charity might look like the leverage that gets people to collect, Szaky said that is not the case.
None of them are doing it for the 2-cent donation, he said. People just don't like throwing these things out.
Things have accelerated because of the green revolution, but even if you take that away, people don't like creating garbage. This creates a concrete solution for consumers and for brands to recycle those empty packages.
Szaky isn't sure why other firms haven't started more recycling initiatives, but he speculated that it is because people don't like looking at garbage, because it is messy and it is massive.
According to the TerraCycle Web site, which updates the totals daily, its brigades, as of Dec. 11, had collected 1.244 billion units of waste that were turned into 102 different products. Nearly 8 million people 7,952,248 to be exact did the collection, with donations to charity totaling more than $359 million.
Schools, community groups, charities and nonprofits are typical collection group startups.
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