Tom Szaky co-founded US recycling company TerraCycle in 2001 when he was just 19, and has since turned it into a multi-million dollar global business.
Earlier this year the company teamed up with a host of major corporates including Unilever, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola to launch Loop, a reusable packaging service enabling consumers to send back their used product packaging to be cleaned and reused.
A self-styled ‘eco-capitalist’, Tom has also authored several books about recycling and waste.
Do you think it’s important we respond to the climate emergency?
Yes, it’s imperative that we respond as decisively and urgently as possible. About 60 per cent of the world’s resources are already degraded or used unsustainably.
We have a rising middle class, a world population projected to reach nine billion by 2050, and a planet approaching the limit of its ability to provide.
Plastic waste contaminates both our water and our food, leaching chemicals and heavy metals in our water sources and the ground where we grow our crops and, in the end, bioaccumulating in our bodies through the food we eat and the water we drink.
As a specialist recycler, TerraCycle know that to tackle the garbage crisis, recycling on its own is not enough. We have to change the way we consume and move away from the reliance on single use, disposable packaging. Loop, our new circular shopping system, looks to do exactly this.
How would you define a green radical?
For me a green radical is someone working in the environmental space who is willing to take risks. Willing to look at things differently and challenge the norm.
Do you regard yourself as a green radical?
With TerraCycle and Loop, we look for solutions and try new things that go against the way they have been done before. We decided that the best way we could make a significant difference was to help big business facilitate change. In our case, it is to help companies and consumers move away from previously non- recyclable and/or disposable packaging.
How has your organisation taken a radical approach to environmental action?
We’ve always believed that in order for our solutions to work and make a difference that we need to work with, not against, corporate business. This is a very different approach to many other eco-friendly companies and environmentalists.
What’s the biggest barrier to you driving change?
Not considering the priorities of other stakeholders is the easiest way to create obstacles. Every step in the right direction of radical change must have input from all stakeholders to ensure everyone is aligned. Input from manufacturers, retailers, all levels of government and the public helps to capture factors for success.
What’s the secret to taking a radical idea mainstream?
Disposability came about in the 1950s and it won because of two benefits: convenience and affordability. With Loop, we solve disposability while maintaining or beating the affordability and convenience.
The key thesis statement is we can’t just recycle our way out of the garbage crisis. We need foundational changes. Our version of the foundational change is: how do we solve disposability at the root cause, while matching the benefits?
We realised that recycling and using recycled content is about trying to do the best you can with waste, but it’s not solving the foundational reason we have waste. We did a lot of reflection on that and realised that the foundational cause of garbage is disposability and single-use.
We tried to come up with a way to solve disposability but maintain the virtues of disposability, which are convenience and affordability. That way is Loop which I like to think of as the milkman reinvented. It’s rebooting an old idea in a modern way.
What’s the most radical thing you’ve ever done?
There have been a few things along the way, but one recently is the development of Loop. Convincing the world’s biggest CPG companies to make fundamental changes and investment in their packaging and supply chains without a guarantee of success is certainly a radical thing.
Who are the other green radicals that inspire you today?
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author who dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment.
And in general, within brands and retailers, those who are willing to take risks and try new things that champion and support environmental issues.
What one radical thing would you like people to do right now to change our future?
Firstly, industry must design differently. Be it products, packaging, route logistics, or the systems of wealth that perpetuate structures that no longer work, changing the future is a matter of design. The ‘business as usual’ approach will not hold.
Secondly, consumers can consume differently. People like to think they are slaves to the corporate machine, but the truth is the purpose of business is to serve the desires of the consumers. So, vote for the future you want with your wallet, and industry and governments will have no choice but to follow.
We can think about it this way: the next time you go shopping, whatever you buy, two more will be created. One to replace the one you bought, and one to signify the trend. For everything you don’t buy, one less will be there because there is nothing to replace.
If you choose brands doing the work to manage resources more wisely, you vote for a future with less waste.
This interview forms part of a series of interviews that were published in a new report, New Green Radicals: The business leaders responding to the climate emergency. The report follows last year’s ‘Meet the Disruptors’ and 2017’s ‘Secrets of the Pioneers’ reports, and this year features interviews with entrepreneurs, leaders and creators who are providing radical solutions to the climate crisis.
The report is produced by Greenhouse PR in association with BusinessGreen and was launched at the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit on October 23rd. Follow live on social media with #NewGreenRadicals.
At Greenhouse, we support a wide variety of organisations pioneering climate action. Whether it’s fashion, finance or farming, if you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, get in touch with the Greenhouse team on 0117 214 1250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.