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Inside the hallowed halls of the soon to be famous TerraCycle, modern day mad scientists are figuring out what to do with everything we humans throw away, from gum wrappers to hair nets to used feminine hygiene products, while other workers happily go through bags of nasty garbage. 

TerraCycle Building

It’s just another day at the office for the employees at TerraCycle, a company that upcycles garbage into useful, and sometimes even beautiful, new products. The innovative business and its quirky workforce are the focus of a TV show called Human Resources, a humorous new reality series on the Pivot network that premieres on Friday, August 8th at 10/9c.

“We focus on making things that are non-recyclable recyclable,” says CEO Tom Szaky of the 11-year-old company he founded, which produced an organic plant food made from liquefied worm poop packaged in used soda bottles. With a $3½ million sales success, “We realized that the model of making products out of garbage could apply to any product, any form of waste.” TerraCycle is now involved in salvaging and transforming thousands of products in 26 countries around the world. “This year we’ll do $25 million in sales,” says Szaky.  

That revenue is derived from two main sources. First, TerraCycle works with consumer product manufacturers, municipalities and individuals who pay the company to take their non-recyclable waste off their hands. “That’s maybe 75 percent of our revenue. Then we convert these objects through reuse, upcycling or recycling, that’s the other 25 percent. But profit is not our focus,” Szaky emphasizes. He’s more interested in reducing the need for new materials, thereby reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing. 

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“I limit our profit to 1% of our revenue, and I do that by taking all the extra money that we get and reinvesting it into more R&D, coming up with more ways to recycle incredibly complex things. That's how we were able to invent chewing gum recycling, cigarette recycling, dirty diaper recycling. The most important indicator of our success is impact. Our logo is on a hundred million packages, and 75% of American schools run a TerraCycle platform of some kind,” Szaky points out. “Just this year alone, we will have processed 100 million pounds of non-recyclable waste. For example, companies like RubberMaid are making trashcans out of potato chip bag plastic, and instead of making Mr. Potato Head out of new plastic, Hasbro integrates the waste material we collect. Timbuk2 makes messenger bags from old post office bags, and so forth.”

Not surprisingly, TerraCycle’s Trenton, New Jersey headquarters reflects this spirit of innovation and environmentally minded commitment to reducing consumption. “In our office, every detail is made from garbage,” says Szaky proudly. “There are no walls. The dividers are old vinyl records. Your desk is an old door.”

The atmosphere in the workplace is just as unconventional, and fun. “If you come and work for me, you get assigned a Nerf gun. As you grow in seniority or your Nerfgunning skills grow, you get a better gun and so on. There’s yoga every day, for fiveminute fitness. And people are allowed to bring their pets to work,” Szaky enumerates. He believes pets make people more productive, and that’s also why he provides free lunch for employees. “I noticed people were going out to have lunch, and it turned into an hour-and-a-half lunch break. The moment we brought in free lunch, they took their plate back to their desk, and they worked even more.

Tiffany Threadgould with petAnother unusual innovation that Szaky, who fosters an egalitarian work atmosphere, has adopted is “You can walk into my office without an appointment, and you can just yell ideas around. It just creates a free flow of information. I want to create a culture that enables an idea to come from anywhere, because the good ideas don't just come from the people with the biggest paychecks. They come from all corners.” 

As Human Resources portrays, the 120 or so employees at TerraCycle’s headquarters are indeed a motley crew of characters. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve looked at each other and said, ‘This is a TV show. We should be filming this’ because we’re cracking each other up all the time,’” says Szaky. “You can’t fake this stuff. It’s natural. But let’s not kid ourselves. People are aware of the cameras and play into it, but they’re still who they are. They’re not actors.” 

Tom Szaky, Tiffany Threadgould and DeanTurning TerraCycle into a TV show “took years,” reveals Szaky, who had approached networks before Pivot, “but I felt like they would turn it into one of those ‘who sleeps with who’ reality shows and I desperately didn’t want to go there. So I was thrilled when I heard about Pivot and what their ethos is. I’ve never had a single disagreement on edits or notes. It’s the best.”

While around 10 percent of TerraCycle’s 120 or so employees want nothing to do with Human Resources and asked to be relocated to make sure they're not seen on camera, most of the employees were eager to participate. Says Szaky, “They really want to be a part of it and see it as a perk. They want to show off who they are, and they’re very comfortable with cameras coming around our office. It's just a different sort of experience, and it creates another layer of fun, and allows them to drop their guard just a little bit so even more authenticity comes out.”

Garden productsNot all the workers are the stereotypical “granola hippies” one might expect at a ‘green’ company. Szaky points out, “We have people who collect guns and vote Republican,” which underscores his tenet that eco-business is for everyone. “I don’t care so much about converting someone who’s already an environmentalist. It’s more of an accomplishment if I can inspire people who voted for Bush and eats meat three times a day, to create companies that, hopefully, create change.” 

“It kills me that in 11 years, I have no business competition, globally,” says Szaky. “I hope this show goes into other markets so people around the world can see it, and get inspired to create their own, homegrown version of our business model. And who knows? Maybe they can create a TV show that encourages ‘reuse, upcycling or recycling’ in their languages, too. TerraCycle in Swahili? Now that would be really great!”

Look for TerraCycle‘s Human Resources on Pivot beginning on Friday, August 8, 2014 at 10/9c

 

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 161 - September 2018
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