TerraCycle has grown every year since the beginning, but in the past two years it has exploded. Corporations that wouldn’t have signed with us before are now signing on. And corporations that are signed on are going deeper. We grew our revenue 30% organically in 2019, compared to 2018, and expect the same in 2020. This is driven primarily by everything moving faster and companies wanting to go deeper versus big new surprises or new industries that have been asleep now waking up. In parallel, we also raised about $20 million for Loop Global and about $20 million for TerraCycle US. The key change there is that investors are looking much more for authentic impact investments. This is entirely correlated to garbage becoming a crisis.
I don’t think Loop could have existed even five years ago because of the ask. Essentially, we’re asking CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies and retailers to fundamentally redesign packaging and accept major changes to the economics of packaged goods delivery — in other words, to treat packaging as an asset instead of a cost. Because of changing views on garbage, they’re increasingly willing to say yes to that. So what is happening now in the startup world is that more audacious ideas that solve these issues — like Loop — are on the table.
Do you think existing companies are going to be able to make this shift? Or is it going to have to be new companies that are entering the market?
Both. I think that we’re going to see some organizations die because of this. Others will pivot. And new companies will fill out the balance, just as with any shift. Look at tech, for instance. How many retailers survived it? Some did a great job, right? And some, like specialty big-box retailers — Toys “R” Us, Linens ’n Things, Staples in Europe, et cetera — died in the process. The key in this instance is to pivot and reinvent the organization, noting that this is easier said than done, as it takes tremendous short-term sacrifice.
I believe that it won’t be industries or sectors that pivot versus die, but individual companies. Some organizations, like Nestlé, Unilever, and P&G, are taking these issues seriously and making the difficult decisions that may negatively impact the short term but lay the foundation to be relevant in the long term. Inversely, organizations — like many big food companies in the U.S. — are blind to what’s coming and will likely be overtaken by startups that are building their business models around the new reality that is emerging.
When you’re having conversations with investors for TerraCycle or Loop, what are they concerned about? What do they want to know?
There’s suddenly a lot more interest in this topic in the investment community, and I think investors would tell you that they really think sustainability is almost a requirement for the future. Fifteen years ago, when we were raising capital for TerraCycle, people invested because of impact and purpose; it was like they were considering giving money to an NGO. Today, investors would tell you that they really think sustainability is a requirement for the future. They are looking at the sustainability index not just as “Oh, I am feeling good about where I’m putting my money” — now it’s moved to sustainability being critical for business longevity.
A lot of what we’ve seen major corporations do is market sustainability in that “purpose” bucket, and not in the “business” bucket, with pledges and other high-profile commitments. Is this changing? Are large corporations able to move from the emotional bucket to the business bucket the same way investors are?
The most famous of the pledges is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation pledge, which more than 400 businesses and organizations have signed, signaling their intent to eliminate their use of new plastic. It basically says that, by 2025, they will make their products compostable, recyclable, and reusable. And they will significantly increase their use of recycled content by this date.
Now, let’s be candid about why they’re pledging. Since waste has become a crisis in the past two years, many companies have come to the position that they have to solve it or they will be legislated out of it. The best way to get ahead is to make future promises, partly because you don’t have to do anything between today and the promise day, right? If everyone promises that by 2025 all this great stuff will happen, they are not really responsible in the present.
I’ve talked to chief sustainability officers of some of the world’s largest CPG companies who honestly have no idea how they’re going to pull it off. They have no f—cking idea what they’re going to do and are saying things like, “Well, the industry will figure it out.” That’s scary.
Here’s what I think will happen come 2025 with this particular promise. There is a difference between the promises to be “recyclable” and made from “recycled content.” In other words, most companies, via the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, have pledged that by 2025 they will be 100% recyclable and independently made from a high percentage (typically 25%) of recycled content. I think that the majority of companies will say that they made their package “technically recyclable” but that the recycling industry is to blame for not then “practically recycling” them. I think maybe 90% of companies making these promises will fail and then point to the fine print, saying, “Oh, we made our packaging recyclable, but the recycling systems don’t have the capability to recycle it today.” That’s going to create a big reckoning that will piss off consumers even more, backfiring on brands.
So those 10% that succeed, how do they do that?
They’re just getting ahead of it. Here’s an example: Some companies are now buying futures on recycled plastic so they know they will have the volume, which is an unheard-of thing in procuring plastic. A good example is Nestlé. The key line in their recent press release is this: “To create a market, Nestlé is therefore committed to sourcing up to 2 million metric tons of food-grade recycled plastics and allocating more than CHF 1.5 billion to pay a premium for these materials between now and 2025.”
One of the things that interest me about your company is how you collaborate with so many companies. How difficult is this? Could you go it alone?
We absolutely need to collaborate. These are systemic problems, and to solve the system you need multi-stakeholder collaboration. Loop could only exist with massive multi-stakeholder collaboration. There would be no other way to pull it off. And I think we need more and more of that.
What makes collaborations like this work?
Trade groups and consortiums don’t work. The problem with an industry group, at least in my experience, is to get the group together so they can publicly say that there is a multi-stakeholder discussion. But the outcomes are usually nothing. So how do we create true multi-stakeholder system change? Because if you’re going to change the system, you need all the stakeholders to agree.
With Loop, we consciously tried to create a multi-stakeholder collaboration. And look at what happened: It’s working. We’re adding a brand every two days since we launched, and most major multinational CPG companies have joined: Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, et cetera. We’ve also added a retailer every three weeks since our launch, including retailers around the world. Loop is live in France (via Carrefour) and the U.S. (via Kroger and Walgreens) via e-com, and is expanding in both countries to in-store later this year. It is also launching in Canada (via Loblaw), the UK (via Tesco), Germany (via a retailer we will announce in February), and Japan (via AEON), all this year. And finally, we have seen tremendously positive consumer insights — people want Loop, and they like the experience when they get access to it.
I don’t see too many companies with similar models out there yet. Loop is a major systems change that requires a large coalition of multi-stakeholders. That is, no company can do it on their own — everyone has to act together. What I am seeing is a lot of groups calling us and saying, “How did you do the Loop thing, and how can we apply that type of system or process to whatever our topic may be?” They ask this because, typically, multi-stakeholder collaborations are slow and hard to drive results from.
What do you tell them?
I tell them that you cannot run such a platform by committee. There needs to be a “chair” that makes the decisions, even if the decisions are unpopular, and creates the urgency to make sure everything is moving forward quickly. You also set public deadlines that everyone can agree to. For example, it’s why we launched at the World Economic Forum last year — that was a deadline everyone could align on.The Big Idea
Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, which began as a sustainable fertilizer company in 2003 and has expanded to become a leading recycling solutions system. In 2019, the company debuted Loop, which aims to disrupt the recycling industry by transitioning consumer packaged goods companies and retailers to reusable packaging.