Dreaming up Desirable Upcycled Products with TerraCycle’s Albe Zakes

September 6, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited and honored to have with us Albe Zakes. He’s the Global VP of Communications for TerraCycle. Welcome to Green is Good, Albe. ALBE ZAKES: Thank you for having me on, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Albe, we’ve had TerraCycle on the show before. We’ve had your great colleague, Tom, on. We’re big fans of TerraCycle and we’re going to be talking about TerraCycle today, but before we do that, you have a very important position there as the VP of Communications and you’ve made it a global brand in how you’ve branded it and gotten the word out. Share the Albe Zakes story first about how you got here and why you’re here and your whole young journey — because you’re still very young — leading up to this very great and interesting position. ALBE ZAKES: Oh, well thank you so much, John, for the kind words. It’s been quite an adventure. Though I have a very fancy title now as Global Vice President, I started at TerraCycle as an unpaid college intern and even before that, since a young age, I had an interest both in entrepreneurism and in environmentalism. I grew up above my mom’s bakery. My mom and father ran an organic local European bakery and so from a very young age, I was involved in business and into eating local and eating organic and so when I ended up going to university. I went to the University of Colorado – Boulder, a place known for being eco-friendly, for being full of activism, and while there, I got heavily involved in on campus groups, working for PIRG, Public Interest Research Group, which is a consumer advocacy group, running the local ethnic board, helping to put ethnic cultural events on campus, and really being involved as a student and when I graduated, to be honest, I had almost grown a little frustrated with the environmentalists around me and the environmentalist movement. I felt almost like the people that I was working with alongside at PIRG in environmental art were too worried about working with business and they were, in a way, leashing themselves by refusing to work with big business, to work with governments, and so when I graduated from college, I had originally expected to go work for a nonprofit, but when I first read about TerraCycle, the month that I graduated, our CEO was on the cover of Inc magazine. I know you know Tom very well and he was talking about the belly of the beast theory that if you wanted to change the world, if you wanted to change the business world, that you had to work with Walmart, you had to work with Kraft Foods, you had to work with Home Depot because these were the major players and helping those retailers, those brands and manufacturers to become more eco-friendly would have a much bigger effect in the long run and I was really turned on by that idea and so I wanted nothing more than to work for TerraCycle and I applied for a job as an entry level publicist and I didn’t get the job. I was told I didn’t have enough experience and I followed the advice of my father, which was he said, “If you really want to work somewhere, Albe, you gotta sweep the floors,” and so I sent an email to Tom, the CEO, and basically told him that. “I love your company. I want to come work for you. I’m willing to do anything,” and they offered me an unpaid internship. That was the summer of 2006, and after a couple months, I ended up getting a full-time job and now, seven years later, I run the global marketing department. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Albe, that story in itself makes this interview so worthwhile because I’m just going to share this with you: That’s how I started in my life, as an unpaid intern, and our youth of America today should hear that more and more from great people like you that have evolved to this wonderful position that you’re in because really, starting at the bottom, there’s tremendous honor to that actually and so that’s a great story and thank you for sharing that so now, let’s get to talking about the amazing brand that you do work for and for our listeners out there, TerraCycle, go to the website now, because I’m on it right now and it’s just such a wonderful website full of so much information. It’s www.terracycle.com. Albe, for our listeners that are rookies to this whole thing, what is TerraCycle? ALBE ZAKES: Sure, so TerraCycle is an innovative recycling company that will actually pay you for your garbage, and I should really qualify that. What TerraCycle does is we run free recycling programs across the U.S. as well as 23 countries overseas, and they’re free programs. You can sign up online at TerraCycle.com and you can collect up to 50 different materials, everything from drink pouches and chip bags and candy wrappers to pens, glue bottles, tape dispensers, cleaning packaging, cosmetics packaging — about 50 or 60 different items and you sign up for free on our website. You can collect these items. We even pay all of the shipping, so when you sign up for a TerraCycle account, we provide you with unlimited prepaid UPS shipping slips so you can return your collected material at no charge and for every unit of waste, so for every drink pouch or every tape dispenser or every lipstick package that you send back to TerraCycle, we’ll donate 2¢ to a school or a nonprofit of your choice. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just an amazing business model and before we go into even more about TerraCycle, talk a little but about the humble beginnings, because I remember how TerraCycle started. Can you share with our listeners the very interesting story of how the company even got its start? ALBE ZAKES: Absolutely, so we definitely do have a unique entrepreneurial genesis story. Our CEO and founder, Tom Szaky, was originally from Hungary but grew up in Toronto, Canada. His family immigrated to Canada and he came to Princeton University in the great state of New Jersey and as a freshman at Princeton, he first learned about the concept of composting with worms. He had friends who were taking organic waste; their food waste, paper waste, garden refuse, and were feeding it to a worm bin, basically a compost bin that’s alive with red wiggler worms and those red wiggler worms are very good composters. They eat organic waste at a very high rate and they create an incredible organic fertilizer. Now, this is something that’s been known to gardeners and us hardcore eco-people for a long time but no one had ever made a consumer product out of it and what Tom did was dropped out of Princeton University, the storied Ivy League school, to start TerraCycle by taking liquefied worm poop and packaging it directly in reused soda bottles. Starting as an unpaid intern is one thing, but imagine calling mom and dad and saying, ‘Hey, mom. Hey, dad. The Ivy League education is working out really well, but I think I’m going to sell worm poop instead.’ JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is awesome. So, Tom then takes the company. He starts on the worm poop journey and evolves it now to where TerraCycle is, so talk a little bit about the whole interrelationship with why it’s so important. Your work is not only fun and the products that you make just amazing but talk about the issue of garbage. Why is garbage and recycling such an important issue and why are we in such an important time and the work that you’re doing is truly, even though it’s fun and unique, it’s actually so important? ALBE ZAKES: Well, you know, garbage is a major issue and the challenge is that there is so much waste being created in modern society and it’s vital that more companies like TerraCycle and 1-800-RECYCLING and all of these great companies out there, Earth 911, all these great places that are helping people to recycle more, continue to thrive and that’s because garbage is an incredible issue. We’re all familiar with the Pacific trash dryers and people think of this one trash dryer out in the Pacific Ocean but in fact, there’s five of them at major points all around the globe and the numbers of waste creation are staggering. Estimates are that 5 billion tons of plastic waste are produced every year. The numbers right here in the U.S. are staggering. According to the EPA, the average American consumer creates four pounds of waste every single day and as our population continues to skyrocket, the waste issue is going to become more and more poignant and there’s a lot of reasons for that consumers demand convenience and shelf life and certainly, it’s important to have product safety and because of all these different things that consumer demand and are required of products, there’s been this incredible blossoming of packaging and waste and we’ve actually found that again, according to the EPA, that one-third of all municipal solid waste that goes to landfill in the U.S. is packaging waste and it’s because these types of packaging are made from hybrid materials. They’re made out of not just plastic, but plastic and aluminum or plastic and paper or paper and aluminum and because they’re hybrid materials, they’re incredibly difficult to recycle and it’s causing all sorts of issues, destroying our waterways, filling up our landfills, clogging our gutters. It’s even adding to things like flooding. When you see things like hurricanes, when they hit the East Coast, because so many of our waterways and gutter ways are backed up with garbage, it’s actually increasing flooding and so garbage is just this major, major issue and so it’s important that we find a way to reuse this material as more and more resources are drawn out of our planet, whether it’s petroleum to create plastic, whether it’s cutting down trees to create wood, materials are gonna become more expensive. Resources are gonna become harder to find. They’re gonna become more difficult to extract from the planet and so finding ways to reuse, to recycle, to repurpose, to upcycle, all of these different things that we can take material that already exists and turn it into a new, useful product and give it new life is really vital. If we want to continue to grow as a population and continue to consume the way that we are, we’re gonna have to find better ways to deal with the end life of the packaging that we deal with every day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect, Albe so now, we got about five minutes left, so now I’m on your site and again for our listeners out there, it’s www.terracycle.com. You just teed it up now so now so now for our listeners, now that they should be convinced that they should be doing the right thing with their trash and also the packaging, how do they get involved? How do people get involved with TerraCycle and join your great army of constituents? ALBE ZAKES: Sure, so it couldn’t be easier and what’s really key to the TerraCycle system is making it easy for people to go green and so all you have to do is go to TerraCycle. You can click right there. It says, ‘Click here to get started,’ and it’ll start walking you through the process. What you’ll find is you can collect almost kind of any material you want; food and beverage packaging, school and office supplies, home and beauty packaging, cosmetic packaging. All you have to do is sign up. You select what materials you want to collect at home. You can do this at your church. You can do it at a school. You can do it at a nonprofit, at the local YMCA. You can sign up for the Boys and Girls Club, any kind of nonprofit or charity, any kind of community organization is welcome or you can just collect at home or in your office. Once you’ve selected the material that you want to collect, you can fill it up in your own box. We used to send out shipping boxes, John, but why spend the carbon and money to ship boxes out there? So, we ask people to use their own boxes. They fill it up with the material that they want to collect. You can print up a prepaid UPS shipping slip and send it back to TerraCycle. We’ll credit you 2¢ for every unit of waste that you collect and then we’ll take that waste that you’ve sent us and we’ll turn it into hundreds of different products, everything from flower pots to watering cans to shipping pallets to playgrounds that we donate to schools. TerraCycle has thousands of applications where we’ll take your trash, we’ll turn it into something wonderful, and we’ll give money to your community on your behalf. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Everybody wins if you get involved and become part of the TerraCycle family. Everybody wins. The environment wins. TerraCycle thrives and hires more employees as a business. We keep waste out of the landfills. We lower the carbon footprint. We make the world a better place. Is this not true? ALBE ZAKES: Absolutely, and we’re trying to inspire and educate kids. We’re really big in U.S. elementary schools. We’re in 20% of U.S. elementary schools. We’re trying to educate and inspire the next generation of eco-activists. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Last two minutes. What’s the future for TerraCycle hold, Albe? ALBE ZAKES: We’re doing a lot of great stuff right now, John. We just launched May 2012 the world’s first recycling program for cigarette butts. We’re now actively collecting cigarette butts, which are the world’s most littered item. An estimated three trillion cigarette butts are improperly littered every single year. TerraCycle has now created a program to recycle these and we’re actively collecting them in Canada, the U.S., and Spain, and we’ll be launching throughout all of South America and Europe, hopefully by the end of the year so we’re now the first company to be able to recycle cigarettes on a wide scale. Even more exciting is by the end of the year, we’ve created the recycling process so we just have to find manufacturing partners that will work with us but we’re ready to collect and recycle used disposable diapers and just lots of crazy things like that, dirty diapers, chewing gum, cigarette butts, hospital waste. All of these major waste streams that otherwise had no choice but landfill, TerraCycle is hard at work creating recycling systems and recycling processes for those materials. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how many employees do you have now at TerraCycle? ALBE ZAKES: Right now, we have about 150 that are directly employed at TerraCycle and there’s almost another 1,000 that are employed at our partners who help us to do our manufacturing and shipping, so we directly employ about 150, but we like to feel like we’re responsible for many thousands of jobs. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Last couple seconds. At TerraCycle, what do you do that’s your favorite thing? ALBE ZAKES: Honestly, I’ve been lucky enough to go do speeches at major business conferences at the UN, but my favorite part is going to local elementary schools, interacting with the kids, seeing them get excited, starting to sing songs and chanting about recycling, making recycling posters. It’s working with the kids that makes me know that I’m doing the right thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Albe Zakes, you are doing the right thing and the world needs more people like you. Again, to go to Albe’s great company, TerraCycle.com. Become part of the TerraCycle family. You can do it. It’s easy. Albe just laid it out for you and it’s all there on the website. Albe Zakes, you are a recycling rock star and truly living proof that green is good. ALBE ZAKES: Thanks, John.