UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

Turning Waste into Opportunity

December 14, 2012 By Jessica Thomas

By Corey Barnes (MBA ’14)

Can entrepreneurship save the world? During UNC’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise sponsored an event where Tom Szaky, Founder of Terracycle, and several other entrepreneurs discussed how their companies have emerged to solve world problems, both on a local and international scale.

Waste into Opportunity

Corey Barnes (MBA ’14)

Waste is uniquely human. There is no waste in the rest of nature, but somehow we’ve created the notion that there are certain items we export to landfills to reside in perpetuity. But what happens when we turn this idea on its head and begin to look at garbage, not as waste, but as an opportunity? Tom Szaky has capitalized on the opportunity of waste to found Terracycle, a company that turns waste into money. With humble beginnings of selling “worm poop” in recycled soda bottles, Tom has grown Terracycle to one of the best known recycler/upcyclers in the United States. Terracycle has just three simple guiding principles: collect, solve, and promote. First, materials are collected through national and international “brigades,” inspired by a passion for the environment and the $0.01 that Terracycle donates to a school or charity for every item collected. Secondly, knowledgeable scientists and engineers at Terracycle work with the composition, features, and designed purpose of the product to create a valuable material that can be used to manufacture other products. Lastly, these products are promoted, not just by Terracycle, but by the brands whose products have been used in the creation of the product. Through this simple process, Terracycle is beginning the transition to a human society without waste.

Entrepreneurs tackling global problems

Thus started off a lively discussion about the myriad ways that Entrepreneurship can (and has already started to!) save the world. Joining Tom in the discussion were Maria Kingery, co-Founder of Southern Energy Management, Daniel Whittaker, Founder of Green Planet Catering, and Sam Imende, Founder of ENZI Footwear. The uniting factor among these diverse companies was that they each saw a problem that needed to be solved, focused intently on solving that problem in a way that was both profitable and responsible, and built a business around it. Each of these entrepreneurs saw systemic waste not as a burden, but as an opportunity. For Daniel, the wastefulness of the hospitality and food industry ignited a business that started off in biofuel and has progressed into a responsible farming, catering and composting business. For Maria, the inefficiency of our energy use, and that inefficiency’s effect on geopolitics, inspired her to found Southern Energy Management. For Sam, chronic underutilization of Kenya’s workforce led him to found a premium shoe business in East Africa that supplies high-quality, sustainable shoes to boutiques across the world. Each of these entrepreneurs saw waste and inefficiency in the world and decided to turn that waste into money.

Failing Forward

Left to right, Tom Szaky, Maria Kingery and Daniel Whittaker

One common trend among panelists was the importance of productive failure, or “failing forward.” In any entrepreneurial venture, the speakers noted, small-scale failures and problems are inevitable and must be embraced. The important aspect of failure is that you figure out why you failed, learn from it and change something. By failing forward each of these companies was better able to know their customers and refine their processes; indeed, failure was an important aspect of why each company developed as they did.


Each of the speakers also noted the importance of partners and strictly defining focus for an entrepreneurial venture. Because of limited resources, it is key for a venture to determine their value and not creep into areas where a strong partner could do the work. For example, Tom noted that Terracycle initially worked in the production of the designs that they created, but they realized that their specialty was not in manufacturing, but in the creation of the materials used in manufacturing. To that end, they license the use of their materials and designs to their partner manufacturers, who bring the design to life.

Solving Problems

Another key message for entrepreneurs was that by focusing on solving the problem, it would be much easier to grow the business. With the solution to a real consumer problem in hand and the value proposition clear, building the business and commercializing the product will flow much more naturally. Much like the partnering strategy, entrepreneurial companies should focus on the problem they are trying to solve and outsource ancillary components to companies with that particular specialty.

A New Perspective

An old Einstein quote goes, “the problems that we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” As each of these panelists demonstrated, the fresh perspectives of millions of entrepreneurs are critically important to our world’s ability to innovate our way out of crisis. Entrepreneurs look at a world full of problems and aren’t depressed because the world has changed; they are excited about the potential of the world to come. Entrepreneurs can indeed save the world.