A Show About Garbage: ‘Human Resources’ Documents the Funny Business of Recycling

Tune in to Pivot and watch an office of eccentric 20-somethings try to clean up the world’s trash.
Tom Szaky founded TerraCycle, a recycling company based in Trenton, N.J. (Photo: Human Resources)
Aug 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

It all started with worm poop.

As a freshman at Princeton University, Tom Szaky watched his friends feed food scraps to red wigglers, whose droppings they used to fertilize houseplants. Szaky began asking what would become his life’s big questions: Why does garbage exist? How can we outsmart it?

In the next 13 years, he would start and run TerraCycle, a business headquartered in Trenton, N.J., in an office made largely out of junk. The mission? Recycle all—and the company means all—types of trash.

“I left Princeton, moved into a basement office, and found myself spending hours shoveling rotting food waste,” says Szaky, who’s now 32 and has a tornado-swept mop of hair. He maxed out credit cards to buy the equipment he needed to produce fertilizer from worm castings, which he sold in used soda bottles. Szaky made no profit and nearly gave up the project—until it caught the eye of a venture capitalist who cut him a check. Today, with offices in 25 countries, TerraCycle has expanded beyond organic fertilizers.

With giant brands as partners—including Colgate and Target—TerraCycle has turned potato chip bags into pencil cases, pens into trash cans, and toothbrushes into playgrounds. Szaky gets especially excited about recycling waste that even the most environmentally conscious would happily send to a landfill. This includes cigarette butts (which are turned into plastic pallets and compost), dirty diapers (doggy pee pads and park benches), and chewing gum (TerraCycle is still figuring this one out).

“They’re massive environmental issues, but because of the stigma around how ‘dirty’ they are, no one else is developing recycling processes,” Szaky says.

Getting people to see soiled diapers in a greener light is one thing, but having them produce less trash is another story. Ideally, Szaky says, people buy less or don’t buy stuff at all. That’s where Human Resources, which premieres today on Pivot, TakePart’s sister network, comes in.

The show documents the work lives of the young people who run TerraCycle’s New Jersey headquarters. “Viewers will learn new things about the products and packaging they use every day,” says Szaky. Though Human Resources’ ultimate goal is to raise awareness about the dangers of mindless consumerism, he stresses that the show is not just for hippies. “They’ll also see the fun antics, crazy pranks, and social happenings of a bunch of passionate 20-somethings.”

Szaky has come a long way from being a kid fascinated by worms. Now he leads a company of people who are just as ardent and eccentric (perhaps it takes eccentricity to want to work with poop from creepy-crawlies, diapers, or other things), all aiming to clean up the world’s trash.

Szaky remains ambitious: “It may not happen in five years, but one day I want TerraCycle to become the Google of garbage.”