157: Tom Szaky, part 1: TerraCycle’s new initiative: Loop (transcript)

March 19, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Tom Szaky

Tom Szaky has been working on waste since his undergrad days at Princeton in 2002. Then I suddenly heard about him from many sources in the past few months never having heard about him before. His company TerraCycle recycles waste that others don’t but his new company Loop got attention at Davos recently and support from many companies whose business plans depend on producing waste within an economic model that promotes growth. It’s a dangerous place to be. He also published a book The Future of Packaging co-authored by top executives from waste and growth places. I wrote more notes from that book to prepare for my conversation with him than any other book including the McDonald’s one. The book never mentioned reducing consumption. Twisting as I saw it the idea to reduce material per package which is not the same as reducing overall number of packages, overall waste. Almost no one gets the subtle but critical distinction between efficiency and total waste. Our polluted world is the result of centuries of increasing efficiency and total waste. Nearly every initiative that I see today extends that trend missing that efficiency in a polluting system leads to more efficient pollution. His book did talk about responsibility, the counter to externalizing costs. So the book missed what I consider the most important part of handling waste which is reducing supply and demand but got responsibility. So I wondered if he was serious or yet another person confusing feeling like he was reducing waste while increasing it the way the Watt steam engine did, Uber does, widening roads does, and LED bulbs are on track to or if he is really onto something. You’ll hear from this conversation that as best I can tell he understands the systemic issues and the need for systemic change. For the rest, listen.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Tom Szaky. Tom, how are you doing?

Tom: I am doing well. Thanks for having me.

Joshua: Glad to have you. And I was just saying before we start recording I’m reading The Future of Packaging and I’ve been watching videos about Loop which has just come out. Actually, a lot of people have been sending me stuff related to that especially I guess since Davos.

Tom: That’s right.

Joshua: So I’m really glad to meet you. And I was just saying I also really hope to meet you in person because your stuff goes into a lot more depth than most people and I think most people just kind of hope other people figure this stuff out.

Tom: Well, I think that’s one of the challenges in this particular sort of ecosystem. You know I am focused very much on waste. How big of a topic it is? It is sort of the under researched you know very little academic information available on it. I mean there’s no university class on waste yet everything in the world one day ends up as garbage which is sort of an odd quandary, I would say.

Joshua: Yeah. And it’s very fascinating, it’s both exciting and interesting for a lot of people and also a big… They are just, “Why can’t I just throw it all in one place?”

Tom: Right. Totally.

Joshua: Well, I’m doing my part. If they’re not doing their part… You know it’s so easy. People like to dwell… On the one hand, I think people like to not worry about stuff. On the other hand, the people who do start making it their business love it. I mean business like you but also like zero waste people and people like… When you reduce waste it feels really good.

Tom: It does it’s very purposeful and that’s one of the things I love about my job is that really a huge amount of the reward is not just monetary but also very purpose driven and that of course is a wonderful thing to have to wake up to every morning.

Joshua: And it’s something missing I think… Here’s something I point out to people if you tell someone here’s one little thing that you can do, it implies that they don’t want to do it. You make a compliance in the moment but you might also reinforce a belief that like, “Well, that’s just hard.”

Tom: I think you’re absolutely right and I think this is one of the biggest challenges in the environmental movement overall is that it’s many times sacrifice based. And I think you know people struggle with that. And it’s also very hard to create a habit on that type of decision. You know I think that the more that the movement and its ideas can be framed and this is a better life, you can live better, it’s the opposite of sacrifice, that’s what’s going to get people to gravitate towards it and I think that’s very important for the folks who are trying to develop environmental and social practices or systems whatever they may be to really center on that and really focus on people just want everything easier, cheaper, better.

Joshua: Yeah. You sound like me because it’s really about a system’s perspective based on values that are driving the system. And if you don’t work on those things, you’re liable to get a system that’s just like we have now but maybe more efficient.

Tom: You’ve got it. Exactly right. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Joshua: Well, good talking to you.

Tom: Exactly.

Joshua: Well, so that’s one of the big challenges is it to me I see the values driving… I mean the system. What do I mean by the system? It’s kind of hard to say like the global economic system but let’s kind of say that we know what we mean by system. It feels to me like the values driving it among them are growth and externalizing costs.

Tom: Yes. Profit I mean it’s profit and growing the profit is another way to say a synonym to what you just said.

Joshua: Yeah. And that if we have a system just like that, I think pollution is an inevitable outcome of that.

Tom: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. And a lot of other destruction as well you know all sorts of strains on the environment if you keep externalizing.

Joshua: So what are the alternatives?

Tom: You know it’s a really interesting question. So you know what everyone will say is how do we embed the externality true cost accounting, why people should really have to pay in the product for all of its externality. That’s like sort of the dream. The question is “OK. If that’s the goal, how do we get there in the reality of today?” So I’ll give a couple of quick examples all within waste but at least hopefully they’re illustrative to how at TerraCycle we tried to do this in a voluntary fashion.

So let’s just take a waste for example. You know our first division at our company really revolves around how do we make things that are not recyclable recyclable. Now before I just go into how we do it I think it’s always important to understand why something exists or why is something recyclable and why is something else not recyclable. And many people think that it has to do with the technical capability of the waste. In other words, things that are recyclable or easy to recycle for recyclers and things that are not recyclable they’re not recyclable because they’re hard technically for a recycler to recycle. And in fact that’s not the issue. The issue is entirely economics. Recyclers are urban miners you know so they will mine out of garbage what they can mine at a profit and leave everything else to the cheapest way to destroy it. That typically becomes land filling or burning or burying, land filling and incineration. And so it’s all about economics. And so the way we make for example dirty diapers recyclable in Holland which we just launched with Pampers, there are toothbrushes with Colgate or you name is we work with those companies so Pampers and Colgate [unintelligible] to offset the economic difference on what it actually costs to collect a toothbrush or a diaper, what it actually costs to process minus what we can actually make by selling the waste and they solve for that Delta.

Now you can’t just go to a company, you know this goes to that earlier point, and be like, “Well, just take responsibility and pay the bill you know internalize that externality.” A better way and a way more effective way to frame it and what would generate success is to say, “By recycling you know toothbrushes Colgate you’re going to get more people to love your brand and when people are choosing their toothbrush they’re going to choose your brand instead of someone else’s.” And that market share shift makes it a profit center for them to make their waste recyclable and while they are now voluntarily internalizing that externality. And that’s sort of the unlocking mechanism if you will for our entire business unit that has to do with that topic. So there’s this one.

I’ll give you just one other example to give you a contrast on this for a moment. With a new division we launched just a month ago, the one you mentioned about Davos called Loop which is all about moving packaging from being single use and owned by the consumer to effectively multi use or reusable and owned by the manufacturer effectively eliminating the idea of waste. That’s again sort of you know the macro reason we created it. The key thing that the manufacturer internalizes there is they own the package throughout. And the beauty of that being internalized and obviously from a sustainability point of view is that it encourages reuse instead of single use which is amazing from the eco point of view but forget that for a moment. Look at it just from a economics point of view. And the benefit to them is that that package as an asset means that the longer they make it last, the cheaper financially it becomes for them because you know the total cost of the package divided by the total number of possible uses. So they’re actually motivated by having internalized that to make it way better for the environment and sustainability. And this I think is sort of the interesting unlocking mechanisms of how do we live that dream of having everything be really fully accounted properly.

Joshua: So I heard a lot in there and let me see if I can… I was trying to break it down or not break it down but elevate it up to the systemic level. And so for example when you said that with recycling it’s an economic issue, not necessarily a technical issue that to me says it’s really values. I mean economics feels to me like what’s the value of something. And if we look at it only from a technical perspective, we missed this values perspective and I think that that’s what really governs what gets recycled or not. And in terms of Loop to me the opposite of externalizing cost is taking responsibility and it feels like you’re saying, “We’re enabling companies to take responsibility.” and that’s a systemic change, the unlocking. To me in my language… Sorry if I am making it sound… It makes it easier for me to think this way. I’m not sure if it makes it harder for you to think this way. But are you saying, “We’re getting companies to take responsibility for their waste or we’re enabling them to?”

Tom: Yeah. I would frame it in just one different way which is it’s not about the… It’s the wording and it’s very specific and important. It’s not about enabling them to take responsibility because that sort of seems like here is a voluntary tax that you may pay to be a better citizen. It’s a little bit more that we are showing them that by taking responsibility they will win at what they care about the most which is sell more stuff.

Joshua: So it’s making again an economic case or a values based case that if you do this, you will… What they want to do? They want to deliver goods to the product, to the consumer at a price that’s competitive and so forth.

Tom: Yeah but let’s be super clear. What do they really want is to be more profitable. Everything else is a sub point of being more profitable. How do you be more profitable in a world like toothpaste brushes where no one is going to buy more toothbrushes is where they buy your brush instead of someone else’s. And that is the key thing to frame it in. And magic happens from there.

Joshua: Magic happens from there. I’m like, “Yes. And?”

Tom: And the magic is that they start taking responsibility over these topics because it shows them that it’s good business.

Joshua: OK. So the magic is that there’s less waste going to landfills.

Tom: Exactly. Yes.

Joshua: And I guess a happy consumer. Consumers feel better about what they’re buying and like that brand more because they’re not just doing this but they’re letting the consumer know that they’re doing this so the consumer can make an educated choice. And consumers are like, “Oh, thank you for relieving me of trying to figure what to do with all that stuff.”

Tom: Yes. Yes, exactly. And the consumer wants a better planet too. Everyone’s aligned on that.

Joshua: So now I have a couple of challenging… There’s some things that come up for me. There’s one big pattern. There’s a big difference I see between efficiency and lowering total waste. And one of the main pictures that I think of is the Watt steam engine. You know one of the big not the only thing but one of the big things that started Industrial Revolution. And it wasn’t the first steam engine but slightly more efficient than any before and everyone expected, “More efficient – we should use less coal.” And we end up using more coal because once it became more efficient people used engines for things that they never did before and they used them more. And that pattern I see over and over again with LEDs it’s happening, with Uber and congestion. And oftentimes people look at the place where the waste happens and they say, “Okay. We’ll make this more efficient.” but if you make it cheaper, then you have to look at the demand curve and what new things are you enabling if something’s cheaper. And it seems historically that we keep using things for more purposes and then using them more even though the place we wanted to make it more efficient is more efficient. And so this pattern keeps happening over and over again and I think we keep thinking we’re moving in a direction that helps or reduces waste. But the net effect seems to be the world that we live in of more efficient than ever and more waste than ever.

Tom: Exactly right. I mean it is a quandary… I mean a massive one. You are absolutely right. And there is many times these things go pull in very opposite directions. You know again in my expertise in waste and these topics like what… You know interesting things we noticed is you know for example is people try to make packaging more efficient and more cheaper which you could argue sustainably is less material use. It actually explodes the use of that package even more so you get way more volume and that new lighter package that is more complicated becomes significantly less recyclable making it actually a much bigger waste issue. And this is one of those sort of very challenging dynamics and I think any sort of sustainability type of question is you know what happens when you create that breakthrough.

Joshua: And by the way I have to say that the book of yours The Future of Packaging goes into all this detail. And so people who are interested in this this is one of the sources that I’ve come across that has useful information. It’s easy to read. The people… I have to digress here for a second. How do you get all these people involved in that at such high levels? Because these are the people that I’m looking to work with myself and I’m just like wow, you really got some great people working on this.

Tom: Yeah. I mean you know it’s amazing. So each chapter you know The Future of Packaging has a co-author on it. So it’s not just my opinion. It’s an opinion of quite amazing experts in the field. And you know these are folks that I’ve gotten to know over the past 16 years of building TerraCycle around the world. And you know it’s a great honor to be associated with them and you know they all had a lot of passion for this book because they all felt like people who are trying to do the right thing, really trying to take the right sustainable steps you know and to change their organizations, to change as individuals may not understand what’s really happening and maybe trying to do the right thing and actually doing the wrong thing in the process which is really sad and shouldn’t happen.

Joshua: I see that happening all over the place because here’s a criticism I have and I mean it with the best intent of helping the causes we share is that there’s very little on reducing in there and most of the people that you have when they say “reduce” they are talking about using less material and packaging but not reducing packaging or reducing consumption.

Tom: You are precisely correct. There is only to echo. You are absolutely right, 100 percent right. You know and just a really shout out to that it’s reduce by not reducing waste by buying less stuff. Just reducing overall purchases is the answer to solving effectively almost every environmental issue out there that one cares about. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, if it’s you know animal welfare, if it’s you know species reduction, if it’s global warming, forestry reduction, it’s like you know air quality, water quality, you name the issue, it’s all linked to consuming stuff. And I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that is absolutely the most important answer that you pick up on a really important insight. You know in the book I wrote before Outsmart Waste I was able to talk about it a bit more because that was only me writing it. But what you may notice is a lot of the co-authors in Future of Packaging are folks who work at companies…

Joshua: Pepsi, Procter&Gamble, Unilever.

Tom: Exactly. And they cannot in their corporate setting put out the message of “Buy less.” The book wouldn’t have been published. And so that is incredibly insightful, incredibly important. I just want to echo that that is the capital T answer is “Don’t buy.” It’s not about buying better. It’s about don’t buy. Then if you really have to buy better but honor the “Don’t buy.”

Joshua: I hope by bringing this up I didn’t mess up your relationships with these companies.

Tom: No, not at all. Not at all. I couldn’t say it. You know it’s just hard sometimes and this is the challenge of you know I think the issue here is there… I really believe foundationally that people are generally good people. You know I’ve usually met no matter what the company they work with whether it’s big tobacco, big pharma, big food you know any of these organizations and we’ve partnered with all of those, the people inside these companies are pretty awesome people, good people. The problem is the you know KPI or key performance indicators that they’re measured against, get their bonuses on, get promoted or demoted you know that ecosystem sets them up to make it very difficult to make amazing decisions all the time.

Joshua: Because it’s almost always driven by growth.

Tom: And then if you don’t honor that, you get fired and someone else comes in who does.

Joshua: Yeah. So changing that, that’s really hard to change.

Tom: So the only way to change that I think in the short term is to accept it and play into it. And once you’ve been able to do that, then there may be you know opportunities to wiggle.

So let me give you an example of that. So with Loop, this reuse platform, the way we convince our partners to get in is this is just good business. You can solve the massive sustainability issue and you can also upgrade the experience of products to a whole new level for consumers. I mean what a win. Once they’re in are underneath nudging for example as we try to nudge them into say, “OK, now that you’re in Loop you know we think you may want to go more with your vegan flavors, then your non- vegan flavors.” So a good example pragmatically if say Haagen-Dazs and Loop I think traditionally on shelf about 10 percent of their assortment is non-dairy. In Loop it’s 40 percent non-dairy. So you know that’s the type of nudging we can do but only if we frame it in the right way to even begin with or they wouldn’t even be at the party.

Joshua: I mean this is a really tough play. I see what you’re saying and I could see it working and… To me the big values of growth and externalizing costs, the opposite of externalizing cost I see is responsibility. And I see that’s a major play of what you’re doing and the growth part is just so tough.

Tom: It is so tough. And it’s a very delicate balance. You know you mentioned criticism you know like Loop has gotten huge unprecedented amounts of positive attention. But you know what are the criticisms? The criticisms that have come up mostly from folks that are sort of very hard core on the environmental side and some people are, “Well, why are you working with these large producers? They have so many problems. You know you name it they have you know almost every problem out there. And why don’t you only work with ethical amazing producers?”

Joshua: Oh, there I totally disagree with that criticism. I completely agree with you that the biggest Delta…

Tom: Yes. That’s right. And [unintelligible] place the Delta. I want to maximize the delta.

Joshua: Yeah. I want to work with them. I support… If they knew that they were going to harm something and they still acted on it but they kept that secret and they broke the law, I’m a fan of you know equal justice all around. But if they succeeded in ways… They had no idea that the oceans would be a showcase of plastic, no one knew the fossil fuel companies [unintelligible] that we could raise the temperature of the planet. That was inconceivable. And how can you blame someone for succeeding at a business model based on that? But now we know we know and so our understanding of the world is changed. We got to change with the times. And I want to help them.

Tom: I’m 100 percent with you. I think in system change the easiest way I’ve noticed to create system change is to focus the change into as narrow a laser point as possible where you have the credibility to be able to command the change. You know we have that here at TerraCycle in waste and I can go incredibly talk to organizations and so we even have been able to create a redesigned principal in Loop where companies have to redesign all their products to fit our gate. And here’s the rules and you’ll notice that all of them have to do with the idea of waste. Nothing to do with anything else where we wouldn’t be able to command the expertise. So the rules are simply your package must be multi use or reusable and then content… There’s really three types of content. If the content can be recovered and it’s reasonable to reuse, let’s say like the body of a pen, it must go to reuse. If the content is reasonable to recover but unreasonable to reuse, let’s say like a dirty diaper, it must go to recycling which mind you is already a big upgrade. That’s first time in France diapers will be recyclable that will be Loop. And here’s the punchline to this whole conversation. If the content is unrecoverable like anything one consumes like orange juice, or ice cream or window cleaner we have no point of view as long as the product is legal in the country. Because again, who are we to make an opinion on product? That’s not our expertise. So let the law which is the governing body of what should have an opinion make the decision and hopefully someone else who has a great laser focus on content can help bring some system change to whatever that content may be.

Joshua: I’m really glad to hear this comprehensive approach. I was troubled reading the book because the reduce wasn’t there and I see why you do that because you want involved these players, you want to help them change and if that message is in there, they have to be finessed, cajoled and nudged, I guess into… What was the word you used? To get there. I really hope that this is the beginning of multiple conversations which I hope for the listeners we get to record because this kind of depth of such analysis but also action and also consideration. I don’t think we are going to get it from the places that really need it most and so we have to get it to them.

Tom: Exactly right. And it needs external parties you know to do that because they themselves it’s not their area of focus and again they’re not the right players to make those decisions on those. You know it’s again I always believe in sort of this idea of what are the primary motivators and the primary strengths of organizations and then that’s what they should really…. That’s what they’re going to focus on which is the primary motivator which is always the most benign thing. You know for a retailer it’s to sell more stuff basically. That is sort of simple. But also what is the core strength of that type of system as well? And these are the key things I think to align on. And then also to accept the rules and the way people behave, the way the system behaves as the starting point and not to get all down and bothered about, “Well, why aren’t people better people? Why isn’t you know the system more conscious?” Well, this is just the way the chess game is today and play within that. And then once you are able to play within that you can also nudge the rules because the rules can’t change into whatever direction you think is better.


Joshua: I hope that one of our future conversations I get to share my strategy on working on leverage points of the system. If it’s okay with your transition to what I mentioned before we start recording about… Obviously you care deeply, you thought deeply, you’re acting extensively on environmental issues. What’s driving all that? What does the environment mean to you? When you think about the environment what do you think about?

Tom: For me I’ll tell you how I came to this is. The best way to answer that question is know I was born in communism and live now in capitalism and both those systems have positives and negatives. You know the West loves to vilify communism. But what are the positives? The positives are a huge belief in education, health care, you know really what people value is what’s in your mind and how you express it, not your amount of stuff you own. But the negatives are a lot of communist countries decide to make it almost you know impossible to leave and you can’t change the system. And that sort of makes it a little bit of a jail. And that is very, very challenging and a huge negative. You know North Korea you can’t leave. When I lived in the Iron Curtain or under it you couldn’t leave. And that’s really not OK to take freedom away.

On the capitalist side, capitalism is amazing. I think business is the most powerful tool for change. I think it’s more powerful than war, politics and disease. But one thing it really lacks is a moral compass because I remember going to university here in the US and econ 1 on 1 first class, first day, first lecture, the teacher comes up and the professor and says, “What’s the purpose of business?” And the answer to the question was “profit to shareholders.” And I get it I think profits are really important. I’m a diehard capitalist but I don’t think that’s the purpose of business. I think that’s more like an indicator of health. And if we make that the purpose of business, then suddenly the moral compass does not exist in that statement.

And this is where I think combining sort of the benefits of both of these perspectives is really magical in the sense of why should the archetype of a successful business person be make a ton of money doing whatever, may even potentially things that are not so great and then spend your retirement running an NGO or a philanthropy and giving it all the way. That’s a very strange thing. Why not do the benefit of both simultaneously? I think business can be a force for good and be profitable simultaneously. There’s a tremendous amount of examples of that and that’s what we should be teaching because it’s an extra layer of thought. You know you got to think about profit and purpose, not just profit but it’s very doable. It’s not it’s not rocket science.

And you know for me environment was what I really gravitated to just because I really fell in love with it when I lived in Canada. I have a deep respect for it. I think environment is so important, all the answers are there, and it’s just a passion. You know it’s love you know that sort of thing. And garbage for me though became the topic… I think garbage is one of the most interesting undiscovered massive things in our lives. I mean think about it this way – everything you’re looking at right now wherever you are will be garbage one day, with no exception. And not only will it be garbage one day with no exception, I mean like everything – floor, your clothing, the ceiling, whatever is in your frame of view that it’s a physical object and not natural will be waste. But not only will it be waste one day and actually much sooner than you probably think, you know 99 percent of everything becomes waste in a year, you will have to pay the garbage industry to take it. And isn’t that amazing that if the only industry in the world that will one day possess everything literally and yet for how sort of cool that is? Imagine one day you will own it all. Just be a garbage person. For how unsophisticated the solutions are and how undesired being involved in the industry is. It’s a little you know unbalance which is also a great opportunity to come in and innovate.

Joshua: So a lot of what you said was like the views on communism, capitalism, the education, econ one on one it seems to be the frame that you view what to do on the environment now, if I’m not oversimplifying. I am probably am. And to get to the environment I guess it felt like waste seems intriguing to you and it’s something you want to understand and it’s also something that has properties that most people don’t expect of everything ends up there one day. It sounds kind of Buddhist.

Tom: Yeah, yeah. For me it’s just… And it’s also an area which is you know there’s so many topics and you have to be focused. You know you can’t do everything. So is it global warming, is it animal welfare, there’s so many topics just you know this is the one that I gravitated to because it intersects you know love of environment and it really just so many interesting economic upside down theories. I’ll give you example. Whenever anyone studies econ or economics it usually always begins with understanding the relationship between supply and demand and you draw the supply and demand curves all day long sort of you know the simple relationship being hey, if supply goes up over the topic, you know the price goes down because there’s more volume and if demand goes up, price goes up and the relationship between supply and demand.

But here’s what’s sort of weird. OK, as you start thinking about garbage if you look at the way its supply and demand curves are plotted in economics, they’re always plotted in the positive quadrant. In other words, there’s always a price that is greater than zero. But garbage if you had to plot it on a supply and demand curve, well, let’s walk it through, it has tremendous supply but it has negative demand. In other words, what makes something even legally garbage by law? Is it you’re willing to pay someone to take it? So it actually be plotted in an area of the supply and demand curve that’s not even pictured in textbooks. And it’s these sort of things and there’s tons of these examples in ways that it’s like breaks the rules and yet people are not eyes open to it. It’s super strange.

Joshua: It’s totally fascinating. I am picturing as you’re doing… After we hang up I have to get out some paper and draw this out because it didn’t occur to me that. And they’re all these things you know that people don’t notice.

Tom: Yeah. I mean this is the key. Like it’s an upside down economic principle in so many ways. And it just something worth exploration because there is a lot of business opportunity, a lot of opportunity to be very purposeful. And isn’t it great when you can walk in and you spend your day you know like your paycheck comes from the act of doing something that hopefully the planet and/or people will thank you for? You know I mean someone asked me you know later like you know how do I want to sort of reflect on the past and what’s the goal for me. It’s not about fame or fortune, it’s about I’d love to look back when it’s all over you know and I sort of you know tally up what I did on the planet and the planet says, “Thank you for walking on my surface.” Not that you did nothing like net neutral and it’s not that I left nothing behind but I leave a positive behind.

Joshua: Yeah. I really appreciate this perspective. And now I want to ask given some of the values that you’ve expressed about the environment and waste and things like that and where you want to leave things when it’s all said and done, I invite you as I do with most of my guests to pick something to act on that value that you’re not already doing if we can come up with something. And I put a couple of constraints on it. It doesn’t have to fix all the world’s problems and you don’t have to do that all by yourself overnight. The magnitude is not the issue. It can’t be something you’re already doing and it can’t be something telling other people what to do. We got enough of that already. And [unintelligible] measurable difference because a lot of people talk about education and awareness but something that is physically measurable, that it will make a physically measurable result.

Tom: That’s a good question.

Joshua: And then if we can come up with something, I would invite you to share how it went on a second episode.

Tom: OK. All right. Well, I think I have an idea. So you know 10 years ago I became a vegetarian entirely and you know my wife did as well. I mean she’s been for longer. For her it was from a love of animals and the welfare of animals’ point of view. For me it came basically from the environmental side after I rediscovered how destructive the animal industry is on the planet. I’m not vegan. You know I still enjoy cheese and you know and egg every once in a while. And so my commitment would be to take it one step further and go from being vegetarian to vegan. And I definitely love to check in with you to see how it goes because you know navigating that for me is the key question.

Joshua: I should specify that usually I mean it could be an experiment like time based but you might just imply it permanent but…

Tom: Sure. I mean a change if it’s good should be fast and permanent. The question is can you do it.

Joshua: So how long do you think it will take before it kind of fits in?

Tom: I mean I will try it right away. The question is if how well can I maintain it. How well can I you know maintain that behavior.

Joshua: Yeah that’s something I say to people. I usually say… A lot of people when they say their commitment they would be like, “Nothing will stop me from this.” And I point out you know usually there’s two big things that affect it, many things, but other people and travel tend to be the ones that where you know you decide something and then mom makes you something that, you’re vegetarian, so she might make you something like… Oh, my God my mom… I will say it. One time she was going to make me some risotto. And I was like, “Alright. I don’t want any cheese in there.” And you know I do eat some cheese also, very similar to what you just said, and she said, “I’ll make it without cheese. I’ll figure out how to do it.” I was like “Ok. Great.” She doesn’t tell me she stuck a whole stick of butter in there.

Tom: She was honest though and did it right. You see this actually echoes what we just said earlier you know earlier in our discussion is good, really good… She didn’t she didn’t lie. She didn’t put some other thing you know I mean she was perfectly good intention to make the risotto the way you want it and with good intention still didn’t actually do any net positive.

Joshua: Yeah. And actually it strains relationship because now I have to check everything and she thinks I’m checking for reasons… It sets off a funny relationship. Yeah. But anyway, going back to you with…

Tom: All you’ve got to do is just convince her to be vegan and understand why, show her whatever it takes to do it and then you don’t have to worry at all about you know difference between cheese and butter.

Joshua: She tends to lag about six months behind my changes. Like when I said no hydrogenated oils a long time ago she’s like really angry because her pies which have this amazing flaky crust… She’s like, “That’s how it works! It’s either that or lard.” I was like, “OK, well, I’m not going to have either.” And then a while later she figured out how to do it.

Tom: There you go. Well, she gets there.

Joshua: So in any case for your situation you’re going to… I presume you’ve had… This is something you probably already know but there are going to be times when you are sticking with it but then someone doesn’t… You are with other people and they don’t know and they ask you, “Hey, have this.” Or you’re travelling and things aren’t as under your control and the issue is not “How do I solve everything? How do I prepare for everything ahead of time?” Because you can’t. As far as I can tell. It’s how do you handle it when challenges come up you know. So do you know the Assemblage in New York, the co-working space?

Tom: I don’t.

Joshua: I mean we work to look smaller but they are more purpose driven and they’ve been emailing me to ask if I could do an episode in their space and for something near Earth Day. And I wonder if a second conversation around Earth Day in April… It feels like the timing might work out.

Tom: Yeah, for sure. And I think just my schedule is one ridiculous mess. So the best is if whoever helps set this discussion up talk to them sooner than later and they can get you in. And I would love to. I mean as long as the schedule allows, I would love it.

Joshua: OK, great. So I really hope that could be a longer one because I know your time is tight now.

Tom: Yeah. No, for sure. I’d love to. I’d love to do it. The further you book out and the more non-business hours you choose, the more length my admin team can give.

Joshua: OK. Because they tend to like to do things after work like 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Tom: Yeah. Yeah, a little later is a little bit easier for me and I can be a bit more expansive or you know my day starts at 4 so the earliest maybe is not the easiest but later is sometimes easier. You know something like that or… Yeah, something like that would be the easiest by far.

Joshua: OK. And so I look forward to hearing that. I look forward to picking up where we left off because to me I feel like there’s hundreds of threads open and I haven’t got to talk in this level of depth to someone who has considered these things at this level of depth before and it’s very refreshing.

Tom: Oh, it’s actually quite nice to talk to you as well because usually when I do interviews it’s very similar the themes so it’s a little repetitive. This is actually quite nice to go into a different direction.

Joshua: And I usually wrap up with two questions one is is there anything I didn’t think to ask. But I feel like there’s a million.

Tom: Yeah. And I think let’s continue the discussion.

Joshua: Yeah. Any last message you want to give to the listeners before we wrap up?

Tom: Yeah. I’ll leave one message which has to go with this and it echoes the message that we talked about around reduce.

Joshua: Yeah okay. So we talked about reduce. Well, what is that message?

Tom: I think my most important message to listeners out there is that many times as individuals we feel powerless and we also sort of point the blame at large corporations or corporations in general you know retailers and manufacturers for basically making us do things you know and that’s the problem.

But think about this – you know we get very hung up every four years in the United States on who we vote for and we’re voting without money like we’re voting with a pencil on a piece of paper or really voting between a coin toss a side A or side B. So it’s a binary vote once every four years and we get very hung up on that huge amount of energy and media discussion going to it. Yes, this is the crazy part. We vote every day, multiple times a day with actual money on the future with what we buy. And really remember these corporations are not here to sell you what you don’t want. They’re here to figure out what you want and give it to you as cheaply and conveniently and as beautifully and exciting as a way as possible. And even the act of not buying is an act of vote. And just think about that next time you shop because what you buy is really what more of the future will look like.

Joshua: I can’t add to that. Tom Szaky, thank you very much.

Tom: Amazing. It’s great to chat with you too.

Joshua: OK. I look forward hopefully to seeing you in April in person.

Tom: I look forward to it as well.

Joshua: Have a good day.

Tom: You as well. Chao.


I hope this conversation is the first of many not just to hear about his personal challenge which is pretty big at least to me. I happen to still eat cheese. I guess the amount would be one piece of slice per year so that’s been decreasing every year so I might use his action as an inspiration to drop that last bit. Anyway I’m glad he got and explained the reasons why reduction didn’t show up in his book and explained why his book didn’t touch it. I’ve heard enough to believe that he understands and gets and is acting on the most important directions and changes for the environment. I haven’t yet heard enough about the details of TerraCycle and Loop. We just didn’t get to talk that long to tell for myself if I think that they’ll work. But it’s refreshing to talk to someone who understands the key issues, is acting on them and doesn’t push them aside or say, “Oh, it’s still working anyway.” He’s facing them head on and I’m looking forward to how things work out for Loop and himself and also our future conversations.

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