Book Trainer

Outsmart Waste by Tom Szaky

To outsmart waste we need to eliminate the very idea of waste.

This is part of our Book Trainer series – training exercises for books. See the full collection here.

Big idea

To outsmart waste we need to eliminate the very idea of waste. In nature every system’s output is a useful input for other systems. How can we come closer to mimicking nature? By avoiding the creation of garbage and utilizing the garbage we’ve created, there will be less useless outputs.


Tom Szaky dropped out of Princeton to found Terracycle in 2001. TerraCycle has grown into the global leader in collecting and repurposing hard­-to-­recycle waste: operating in over 20 countries, engaging over 60 million people, and recycling billions of pieces of waste through its platforms

My Personal Story:

While self-educating on how to live zero waste in Saigon, I wanted to learn more about trash. Who better to learn from than an entrepreneur who has made this a life-mission? This book gave me a simple yet comprehensive framework for thinking about reducing waste.

Exercise 1

In elementary school we would have recycling drives. Whichever class brought the most newspapers and soda cans would win a pizza lunch!  But the real issue is not recycling, but consumption. 90% of the environmental cost of products comes from resource extraction. Buying less means less waste and strain on the environment.

Avoiding Creation of Garbage: Most sustainable to Least Sustainable

  1. Stop buying
  2. Buy used
  3. Buy durable

Before your next purchase, ask yourself, “do I really need this?”

If you must buy, consider the lifecycle of the product. Can you buy it used? Can you buy a more durable version? Can you buy a version that you can pass down to your children?

Exercise 2

A huge step to outsmarting waste is becoming aware of how much we waste. The average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash every single day, including nearly 1 pound of food/day.

Weigh your garbage for 1 week. How do you compare to the national average? How can you reduce this amount?

Exercise 3

Tom wants us to mimic nature and eliminate the idea of waste.  How can you avoid useless outputs? He identifies 3 ways: re-using, upcycling, and recycling, which are “circular” solutions. In a circular supply chain, every output is cycled through until it becomes an input again (i.e. poop becoming fertilizer, someone else owning your jacket); in a linear supply chain, the output remains an output (i.e. that plastic bag at the landfill).

Where can you donate your old clothes and used stuff? Can you upcycle (repurpose old materials for a new intent)? Finally, where and what can you recycle in your community?

Managing the Garbage We’ve Created: Most sustainable to Least Sustainable

  1. Re-use (circular, least energy)
  2. Upcycle (circular, more energy)
  3. Recycle (circular, most energy)
  4. Incinerate (linear)
  5. Bury (linear)

What 1 item you can reuse (or make available for reuse) and 1 item you can upcycle (or make available for upcycling)?


“Nature simply has no concept of garbage, or useless outputs.”

“To learn from nature and be responsible to it in the long run, we should focus on creating useful outputs rather than outputs that are useless (and potentially toxic). It is a proposition where all stakeholders are winners. As individual consumers, we should look to buy products that are made from natural materials (their by-products make for useful outputs), ideally avoiding complex materials altogether. By consciously controlling our consumption and buying products that produce useful outputs instead of useless ones, we can take a big step toward eliminating the idea of garbage.”

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