Upcycling: CEO Turns Trash Into Cash

terracycle/ABC News

On this Earth Day, when many people are thinking about recycling and deciding on just one thing they can do to become more eco-friendly, one 27-year-old entrepreneur has managed to turn his dreams of a greener Earth into money in the bank.

Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, has a tale of ultimate eco-capitalism. To Szaky, another man's trash literally is his treasure.

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"I don't see garbage anymore. I just see cash," he said.

Instead of recycling, his company upcycles, which is the art of turning garbage into making something new while still utilizing the trash's original shape.

"This is an eco-revolution and we're eco-capitalism," Szaky said. "The point of TerraCycle is to prove that you can make a boatload of money and save the world at the same time."

For example, Szaky's company has made an art kit that is packaged in a recycled beta case and a table with a base made from 12 large beta cases and four small ones. The garbage mogul said he has managed to make money by turning used cookie wrappers into kites and other items consumers are looking to purchase.

"You can really eliminate the entire idea of garbage," Szaky said.

That is exactly what TerraCycle plans to do.

Green Beginnings

Szaky's idea for TerraCycle came to him when he was a Princeton University freshman in 2001. The Hungarian-born entrepreneur, who lived in Holland and Canada before emigrating to America for college, cooked up the idea in his dorm room with a friend, Jon Beyer, after realizing the power of worm feces.

Szaky's friends said they were having trouble getting their garden to grow and an experiment revealed that worm feces was an excellent fertilizer.

Szaky said he so was excited by the idea of turning something discarded into a moneymaker, he dropped out of Princeton -- without telling his parents for six months -- to start his own business.

Today TerraCycle has grown to three locations, one in New Jersey, one in Toronto and another in suburban Atlanta.

A Green State of Mind

Szaky said he believes upcycling is a frame of mind.

When most recyclers see a plastic bottle, he said, they see the plastic as having positive value but the shape as having a negative one.

TerraCycle sees the shape of the bottle as something positive, which is why the company packaged its fertilizer in existing bottles of all shapes and sizes, he said. All the company did was add a label.

Today, TerraCycle fertilizer is a big seller at Wal-Mart.

"We value every part of the waste stream. From packaging, like cookie wrappers, we can make everything from a kite to a shower curtain without changing its shape," Szaky said.

Szaky, who also is the author of "Revolution in a Bottle," said that when creating an object, TerraCycle looks at the material to determine how to solve a problem, rather than making something new to do.

For example, an airline seat buckle becomes the buckle on a messenger bag. When he saw the cookie wrappers, he said, he saw them as pieces of a kind of cloth that could be sewn together to make bags of all kinds. And today, he said, the pencil case made from Capri Sun wrappers is one of their most popular products.

Szaky's ingenuity has helped his company excel, so much so, that he is now able to offer people money for their garbage.

For certain containers TerraCycle will pay from two to five cents and it will pay 25 cents for discarded cell phones. The company even pays for shipping.

Corporate America has also taken notice, he said.

Mars, Inc., has partnered with TerraCycle on a project whereby TerraCycle will produce affordable, high-quality consumer goods by repurposing surplus and used packaging from more than 20 Mars brands, including M&M's, Snickers, Twix and Starburst.

Click here to learn more about TerraCycle.