Behind 'Human Resources': TerraCycle's Mission to Upcycle Anything and Everything

Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle. Szaky and his company are the subject of the new TV series. (Photo: Pivot).

TerraCycle's Trenton, New Jersey, headquarters building is full of garbage — and lot of it is part of the décor. Old doors become desks and the space dividers — there are no solid walls — are made of vinyl records and plastic bottles. The new Pivot reality series "Human Resources," which airs on Aug. 8, focuses on the recycling firm and its quirky employees. The 11-year-old concern is clearly not your average workplace, and that's by design.

Founded 11 years ago by Canadian transplant Tom Szaky, TerraCycle's mission is finding new ways to repurpose garbage that isn't easily recycled, first by devising collection means and arranging funding from consumer product manufacturers, municipalities or individuals, and then reusing or recycling various parts and selling them.

Szaky explains how it works: "You go to and sign up for collection, with free shipping. Then we take the waste, and our scientists look at ways we can manipulate it into new things. We work with product companies who buy those usable raw materials, and make new products. It could be toothpaste tubes turned into forks that are sold at Target or Walmart."

The idea, says Szaky, is to "not create things unless they're replacing existing objects." Toward that end, Rubber Maid makes trashcans from potato chip bag plastic, Timbuk2 makes messenger bags from old post office bags, and Hasbro makes Mr. Potato Head from waste plastic, all facilitated by TerraCycle. "If you buy plastic lumber, there’s a 20 percent chance the raw materials came from me," Szaky notes. "Seventy-five percent of American schools run a TerraCycle platform of some kind. Just this year alone, we will process 100 million pounds of non-recyclable waste." That includes new programs to handle chewing gum and cigarette butts.

Szaky proudly explains that there are now cigarette recycling bins throughout Vancouver, and New Orleans is among the 10 cities that will have them soon, and so will Australia. "We limit our profit to 1 percent of our revenue, and 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," he says. The current challenge? Finding a way to recycle dirty diapers and used feminine hygiene products, which pose unique problems.

"First, how do you collect it? With diapers, there's the question of how do you transport it. Is it hazardous? How do you safely do that? How do you make a system in which a mom, or senior — half the diapers are elderly care — can be collected in a way that's comfortable for them? You have to think all those things through to where someone says, 'That's less gross than putting it in the garbage can,'" Szaky relates. "The next step is sanitization, and the way we do it is with gamma rays. That kills all the pathogens — E. coli, salmonella. With something like diapers or feminine hygiene, we're respectful: we're not going to make it into a fork, something that touches your mouth. We're going to make it into an industrial product. Then you have to make people aware it exists so you can get it out there."

Szaky has a long history of making poop profitable. His first product was organic plant food made from liquefied worm feces. He got the idea when worms that were fed organic garden waste produced a fertilizer that made his plants thrive. "We called it TerraCycle Plant Food and packaged it in used soda bottles. It did really well. We got it into Home Depot, Walmart, Target. It got up to about $3.5 million in sales. We realized that we could make products out of any kind of garbage."

Today, TerraCycle operates in 26 countries, with plans to expand to Chile, India, China and South Korea, and will do $25 million in sales this year. The key to success, says Szaky, is thinking outside the box. He holds up a plastic bottle. "If you were an alien and came to Earth and didn't know what it was for, what would you consider making from it? You have to destroy your preconceptions. That's how you unlock the magic of upcycling."

Szaky, who wears a bracelet woven from scraps by his jewelry designer fiancé, parts of it from old tents, has never bought a new car, shops on eBay for home goods, and wears "one pair of jeans all year until they get a hole in them and then I buy another." He's aware that his 200 travel days of travel a year widens his carbon footprint, but he's able to justify it somewhat because "the work we do in those places does a lot of good."

He believes that consumerism is at the root of most environmental problems. "We buy way too much stuff. If we really want environmental problems to go away, we have to reflect on that as consumers and buy very differently. And if we can get companies to make things from waste, that removes the need for buying, of needing new materials to be taken out of the Earth, which is the number one environmental impact of making stuff. We need that to shift, and to do that we have to make it sexy, cool and something we aspire to."

One way TerraCycle is spreading its message is in a forthcoming 250-page coffee table book that will highlight some of its successes. "Each chapter follows one waste category like plastic, wood or metal and shows how it came to the planet, how it works today, and how it has evolved and changed," says Szaky. "It's about painting the picture of the world of waste."