When Tom Szaky dropped out of Princeton in 2002 to start a company, TerraCycle, that made fertilizer out of worm poop, a lot of people were skeptical. Why not start a web company like that other guy, Mark Zuckerberg? “They expected a male college student to start a dot-com,” Szaky says. “Garbage and waste management wasn’t nearly as sexy.”
But in garbage—or at least the management part of it—Szaky saw a path for change. Over the next 18 years, his company TerraCycle moved well beyond worm poop, taking on some of the toughest recycling challenges—cigarette butts, dirty diapers, used coffee capsules—that no other operation would go near. Szaky is even tackling the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, 8 million metric tons of which accumulates annually. He’s turned a profit by transforming that trash into shampoo bottles, among other things. To date, TerraCycle has recycled 310 million pounds of plastic from the ocean.
Something was still nagging Szaky, though. “Recycling is really important, but it’s not the answer to garbage,” he says. “It’s an answer to the symptom”—the equivalent of, say, taking a Tylenol when you have a headache. Szaky wanted to eliminate the headache in the first place.
So last year he launched Loop, a “circular shopping platform” that offers top consumer brands in reusable metal and glass packages. Customers buy a pint of Häagen-Dazs or a bottle of Tropicana OJ and instead of throwing away or even recycling the package when they’re done, they return it to Loop, which cleans, sterilizes and refills it to be resold—resulting in a much smaller environmental footprint.
Brands have signed on in droves—55 at latest count—as have some of the country’s largest retailers, including Kroger supermarkets. “People want to change, but there aren’t solutions out there for them—not everyone can be a Brooklyn zero waster,” said Szaky. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that you have to meet people where they are.”