Worm Poop and Old-Time Music

“Cool” entrepreneur Tom Szaky is an Earth Week visitor. by Erin McKigney ‘09

Tom Szaky wants your juice boxes, bags of potato chips, and packages of cookies. No, he doesn’t have an obsession with junk food; his interest lies in the millions of containers and wrappers being trashed after these items are consumed. That junk, which would normally end up in waste mountains, is a valuable resource to Szaky. TerraCycle, a company he cofounded in 2001, produces all its products and packages from such waste.

The 27-year-old CEO and author of Revolution in a Bottle: From Worm Poop to a Garbage Empire That Is Redefining Green Business was a highlight of the College’s Earth Week programming and the first guest speaker in the Commit to Change Lecture Series funded through an HSBC grant to the environmental studies program. The Ithaca College Environmental Society (ICES) also sponsored a week’s worth of events recognizing Earth Day, the anniversary of the modern environmental movement.

Szaky calls himself as an “eco-capitalist” because his company is for-profit and run with ecological principles. TerraCycle works around a simple idea: take waste, process it, and turn it into something useful. “My biggest thrill,” says Szaky, “is walking into a store and seeing something we built from garbage sitting on the shelf.”

In a 2006 cover story Inc. magazine called TerraCycle “the coolest little start-up in America.” The company started as a manufacturer of organic plant food, creating the first mass-produced product with a negative environmental footprint, and later expanded into making consumer items from unconventional materials. Szaky gave his IC audience members pencil cases created from recycled drink pouches, one example of Terra-Cycle’s innovative products that prove the adage “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.”

Susan Allen-Gil, associate professor of biology and coordinator of the environmental studies program, thinks it’s important to show positive role models like Szaky who are committed to changing the way people consume goods and treat the environment. “We have a huge waste problem in the United States and a lack of natural resources globally,” says Allen-Gil, “so it’s important that we minimize waste and be aware of new ways to do so.”

Earth Week events on campus ranged from presentations of student research on the environmental history of Ithaca to informational fairs on community-supported agriculture (CSA) to light bulb exchanges. “Earth Day/Earth Week is a time to recognize the ultimate power of our Earth,” says Alison Bernasco ’10, ICES co–vice president, “and to rethink decisions we’re making daily that may be detrimental to our planet and future generations.”