Geri Stengel

 
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Entrepreneur Takes Recycling to New Level

If you think you've reduced your carbon footprint all you can, think again. By looking at the problem of landfills from two sides – not putting stuff in them and taking stuff out of them – a company founded in 2001 by then 19-year-old Tom Szaky has gone well beyond the blue recycling bins we all know and use (don't we?) to upcycling, the reuse of trash.

It all started with worms and a Princeton Business Plan contest.

social entrepreneur, vision, recycle, upcycle, business plan, social enterprise, upcyclingNow his company, Terracycle boasts that it has collected almost 2 billion units of waste and manufactures 178 products using recycled bits and pieces. He has engaged children and nonprofits in collecting everything from candy wrappers to Huggies, and paid them almost $1 million for doing so.

Back to the worms: While looking for an idea to enter into the business plan contest, Szaky was introduced to composting worms: They eat garbage and expel very rich fertilizer. That became his business plan: an organic fertilizer company.

But in the course of years, it morphed into an overall "garbage in, good stuff out" plan. The company began to make things out of candy wrappers and e-waste, things like waste baskets, picture frames, toys, and tote bags.

And it still makes fertilizer out of worm castings.

TerraCycle products are available online and at major stores, such as Walmart and Home Depot, and in five countries.

The trajectory of TerraCycle's success points to three things:

  • the ability of entrepreneurs to see things differently;
  • the importance of encouraging their vision, whether it takes the form of a business plan contest or the willingness to invest in a start-up social enterprise;
  • the myriad ways in which we can help people and the planet.

And I have to add, with emphasis, his experience also highlights the importance of a good business plan. Social enterprises need to be good businesses as well as good for people and the planet. Check out my free webinar for more about the importance of business plans.

Terracycle is a social enterprise that hits all the marks:

  • By taking trash out of the waste-stream, the planet is helped.
  • By re-using material already in the waste-stream (e-waste), the planet is helped.
  • By supporting schools and nonprofits, people are helped.

And the privately held company seems to be growing still, reminding us yet again that making a profit is OK as long as you do it ethically and responsibly. (In fact, it is doing well by staying on the social enterprise course and turning down money – $1 million that came as result of winning the Carrot Capital Business Plan Challenge – because the investors weren't interested in the "eco-friendly" part of the plan.)

It hasn't been a smooth ride, of course. No small business is. In 2009, the company lost more than $2 million. The problem, Skazy decided, was that the company wasn't good a manufacturing its products. That's been outsourced and he predicts a $3.1 million profit in 2010.

Which reminds me, flexibility is a very important part of entrepreneurship. But I've said that before, haven't I?

What creative ways to recycle have you come across? And do you have a business plan? How has it helped your business? How have you recovered from set-backs?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons – As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.