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‘I Want To Make A Lot Of Money Doing Good’

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Starting a business is a risky undertaking. You need money, a product or service people want and away to deliver that product or service that keeps some of that money in your pocket. For social entrepreneurs, the  stakes are even higher: their goal is to do something good while making money.

Tom Szaky of TerraCycle is quite clear: “I want to make a lot money doing good.” And he just may do it. TerraCycle has been based in the U.S. for 13 years, but Szaky and his family fled communist Hungary when he was very young. The ended up first in Holland, then Canada, then the U.S. One thing that struck young Szaky and his father was the amount of “good stuff” people threw out:

In Hungary back then, you needed a licence for a TV set,” he explains.

You couldn’t just go and buy one. Instead, after applying for a licence maybe a year later you’d get a black and white TV, and you’d get the one state channel.

Tom says: “Only a few years later we end up in Canada where every Friday my dad and I would drive round and see mountains of TVs thrown out of every apartment buildings.

“We’d pick a few up just for fun – because we thought ‘who would throw out a TV?’ and they all worked and they were colour!”

This, he adds, got him to thinking about the concept of waste. At the same time, he was impressed and inspired by the entrepreneurs he met in Canada (parents of friends of his), and decided he wanted to run a business.

Don’t think of TerraCycle as a bunch of garbage-pickers, though. (They do have people who donate usable refuse.) The business has contracts with the likes of McVities, Johnson &  Johnson, and Kenco. This $20 million a year company specializes in transforming “difficult” items:

The company’s business model is to find waste and turn it into something useful, for a profit. It collects things that are generally considered difficult to recycle – such as cigarette stubs, coffee capsules, or biscuit wrappers – and finds a way to reuse them.

That is done mainly through processing them down into a material and selling them to a manufacturer, and to a lesser extent by turning them into products such as bags, benches or dustbins.

TerraCycle offices tend to be in low-rent areas of the cities where they operate, decorated with graffiti, with “walls” made of soda bottles. Is it quirky? Yes. Does it work? You bet. Since it’s founding 13 years ago, TerraCycle has not only managed to make a profit, but donate $6 million to various schools and charities and is looking to expand business even further. Making money? Yes. Doing good? You bet.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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