EcoInterview – Albe Zakes, VP of Media Relations for TerraCycle

On 9/16/11, I had a fun and informative interview with Albe Zakes.  He is the VP of Media Relations for TerraCycle. He has been with TerraCycle since 2006. That same year, INC magazine ran a story calling TerraCycle the “coolest little start-up in America”.

They are still very cool and now exemplify a company that’s known for being at the forefront of waste reduction worldwide! When it comes to sustainability – they get it in a BIG way.

Richard: Tell me about TerraCycle

Albe: TerraCycle is an innovative company whose main goal is to eliminate waste. We have a great program in which we pay schools & nonprofits to collect material that would otherwise end up in landfills.  Currently, we collect over 40 different waste kinds of waste, including drink pouches, candy wrappers, used pens, even glue & lotion bottles.  Anyone can sign up for free to collect & return these items, that would otherwise have been sent to a landfill, and TerraCycle pays $.02 per unit to the charity of school of the collector’s choice. These are new end of life solutions! Reuse, recycle, and Re-purpose!

We already have 70,000 locations in the US and about 60%, or 42,000, of these are schools.  Since 2007, we’ve diverted over 2 billion pieces of waste from landfills.  Waste is shipped to regional depots to reduce the environmental impact of the shipping.  In the spirit of keeping it eco-friendly, TerraCycle purchases carbon offsets for the rest.  But waste isn’t just generated in the home, some of it comes from the factory too.  We work with our partners to collect this pre-consumer waste so it doesn’t end up in a landfill either.

Richard: How did you convince major corporations to get involved?

Albe: Well, it was not easy! We focused on the benefits: consumer engagement, consumer activation, and brand ambassadorship. For example, take a Capri Sun drink pouch – rather than just tossing it in the garbage, having students repurpose the wrapper as part of the Brigade program keeps promoting the brand. Large corporations spend millions of dollars on market research and trademarks – but far less is spent on coming up with a solution for the packaging after the consumer users the item!  By working with TerraCycle, these corporations build brand equity  by turning the negative experience of seeing a wrapper or package as litter into the positive experience of recycling and being part of a larger movement.

Richard: What are TerraCycle’s greatest challenges?

Albe: Consumer education — i.e. why/what impact does tossing your garbage have? People wonder if recycling, in general, is really worth it.  Is it really eco-friendly? Buying eco-friendly does cost a little more, which is fine when the economy is good because people are willing to pay for it.  But when the economy is generally bad, they’re not so willing to pay the extra cash for a green product.  At TerraCycle, we make recycled products that are competitively priced with products made from virgin material.  We want to be able to not only address people’s environmental concerns, but make it cost effective as well.

Richard: What’s cool about your job?

Albe: EVERYTHING!!!   I particularly like going out to elementary schools to get kids engaged and excited.  If I show up with a backpack made from Capri Sun drink pouches or speakers made from M&Ms wrappers, it’s very easy for the students to see what we are doing and the logic — they see the power of the products. I have presented at the Harvard Business School and at Princeton — but it pales in comparison to the excitement I see in the faces of elementary school students.

I also really like giving pragmatic and very practical advice through our Internship Program. It’s very hands on and we really focus on providing valuable skills in a positive and fun way! Interns learn (for example) the art of PR, which be applied to many career choices.

Richard: Where does TerraCycle go from here?

Albe: We want to expand outreach and meet new challenges for reducing waste.  I’m very excited about the R & D that’s going into coming up with ways to re-purpose difficult to recycle products. Two great examples are used cigarette butts and dirty diapers! We are continually looking for new waste streams, better solutions to our collection system, and ways for TerraCycle to collect and reuse more trash.

We are really supportive of start-ups (like EcoApprentice) that share our values and vision.  We don’t see other companies in the sustainability field as competitors, rather it’s all for the better good. Collaboration, cooperation, and support are necessary if the waste problem will ever be solved. It can’t just be one company working away at it.

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To learn more about TerraCycle and how they Outsmart Waste, visit their website here.

We are excited to have TerraCycle as a member business on EcoApprentice; if you would like to join,  membership is free.