Tom Szaky’s life is rubbish. I mean that in the most positive way – the guy loves the stuff, and he’s making the very best of it, for himself, his business and the rest of us.
In his book, Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It, Szaky lithely divides out the elements of trash and recycles them into useful advice on how we can clean up the planet.
In case that sounds didactic or imposing, it’s neither. This is a work of passion, but not zealotry. Szaky has an infectious enthusiasm for reusing, recycling, repurposing and generally reworking the way we view waste. He’s on a one-man mission to make rubbish sexy and is doing an excellent job.
His company TerraCycle was founded in 2001 (during his freshman year at Princeton University). It initially produced fertilizer from organic waste. Now the company has operations in over 24 countries, and recycles “non-recyclable” waste (including cigarette butts and used diapers) into a wide variety of consumer products.
His game-changing idea was to view rubbish as a raw material that can be used in the manufacture of a range of new and interesting products. When you do this, the costs are negative. People actually pay you to pick up their rubbish.
As befits a recycler, the information in the book is divided out into its most basic components. First he deals with consumerism, by suggesting we slow the garbage cycle by buying less. Before making a purchase, ask yourself: “Do I really need this object, or am I buying it because I like the feeling of buying something?”
Szaky is not advocating austerity; he recognizes the importance of consumers to the economy. Instead he is asking us to view our purchases as an “economic vote in best practices”. He asks us to buy things that are durable, well designed, well crafted and that have the potential to become heirlooms. In short, he advises we all pay more for better products that will last longer.
He also suggests buying second hand, choosing things with minimal (or no) packaging and buying things that are made from natural components. When buying food, he recommends choosing fresh fruits and vegetables. At the bare minimum, he asks us all to say no to plastic bags.
To further stem this flow of garbage he suggests we all:
Reuse – repurposing an object by valuing the material from which it is made, such as refurbishing an old cell phone so that someone else can use it.
Upcycle – repurposing a waste object into a new form. Szaky links to several blogs that are delightful in their unexpected use of waste products.
Recycle – extracting the material from which something is made such as glass, paper, etc.
Szaky devotes a whole chapter to the science of recycling, including the economics of rubbish removal. He provides some fascinating information about light globes, the plastic numbering on the bottom of bottles and why incineration and landfill are among the very worst forms of garbage disposal.
Szaky’s final suggestion is for governments to view rubbish in the same way they do smoking and to consider taxing the full cost of manufacture and sale to the community, to cover the long-term real costs of its recovery.
His core message is that not all waste is created equal. The trash can is the worst place for waste, not only because there’s no incentive for the supplier (of garbage) to remove it, but because it ignores a valuable resource that we can all profit from, by understanding how to use it better.
Tom Szaky is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, where sustainability is one of the key themes of the programme.
Author: Sheridan Jobbins is a journalist and screenwriter.
Image: A worker picks up a plastic bottle in Taiwan REUTERS/Nicky Loh