TerraCycle Wants To Turn Your Trash Into Lab Samples; They're Starting With Poopy Diapers
by Rudy Sanchez on 05/24/2023 | 3 Minute Read
There are some single-use products that we rely much on but can’t be safely or practically recycled, reused, or repurposed—things like diapers, air filters, and menstrual products. Sure, there are reusable alternatives in some cases, but those aren’t always the best option for everyone.
Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle sees value in this trash.
Something like a child’s diaper holds enough poop that—if collected and properly processed—can be sent to a lab and analyzed, providing insight into the gut biome of kiddos. That’s why TerraCycle, the company behind Loop and other initiatives like the Taco Bell sauce pack recycling program, whose mission is to recycle the unrecyclable, has recently launched its fourth division, TerraCycle Discovery. The first product under Discovery is called Tiniest Biome, and they collect kids' diapers and send them to a lab for testing, providing parents insights and suggestions based on their kiddo’s (literal) crap.
“Discovery came from a realization that certain waste streams carry diagnoseable samples,” Szaky explains. “Think about it this way; a healthcare product, like a tampon or pad, is a medical-grade carrier blood sample carrier. An air-conditioning filter is a perfect carrier of mold and mildew in your air. A child's diaper is a medical-grade carrier of a fecal sample. Partnering with a leading diaper manufacturer, we launched Tiniest Biome, and we can predict allergy propensity and immune system development; all of these interesting insights from the microbiome in the fecal sample, which is really the microbiome in the stomach. In a few years from now, if you're a menstruating person, you can avoid having to go somewhere to get bloodwork done and send your used tampons in for testing.”
Ambitious medical-related startups have had a cloud of skepticism hanging over them since the infamous Theranos. But Szaky explains that TerraCycle Discovery partners with certified laboratories and leading manufacturers. Additionally, they bring together the necessary experts to make testing of such waste possible. Though Tom could not disclose their diaper partner at this time, he did say it’s one of the biggest manufacturers in a space where not many players exist.
Tiniest Biome is easy to use. Users order a kit, which includes an activation code and bag for the used diaper. The diaper is folded, placed in the bag, and then into a box for shipping. When results are ready, users can access the results, insights, and recommendations online. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is also anonymized to protect the children’s data. According to Szaky, the Tiniest Biome kits are currently not FDA-approved and considered wellness products, though the company is working towards that as it's a years-long process.
The distinction between FDA-approved medical products and being a wellness offering is a significant one that limits the kinds of testing kits Discovery can bring to market. TerraCycle has started that drawn-out process to test tampons and pads, something he believes will take 5-10 years, so they can offer menstrual product test kits and provide samples suitable for blood testing and analyzing vaginal biomes. Still, when Discovery finally achieves FDA approval, they can deliver menstruating persons an easy way to test conveniently from home.
Szaky says Terracycle is also considering all kinds of different waste streams to test in the future.
“We've identified about 50 waste streams that can act as central testable carriers,” Tom said. “Anything from water filters, air filters, even other things in the home like cat litter, dog feces, and used motor oil.”
“For humans, there's quite a bit of possible waste streams as well,” Szaky continues. “These include razor blades, contact lenses, ear swabs, toothbrushes—in addition to tampons and pads, adult incontinence products, and child diapers.”
There are plenty of things we depend on in our everyday lives that you can't easily replace with a reusable or recyclable alternative. Healthcare-related items like tampons and children’s diapers, dirty air filters, and used motor oil—and not that you'd really want to. TerraCycle Discovery is looking at ways to provide more value out of trash through lab testing of things like diapers and, in the future, plans to test more of our waste.
If you can’t replace, reuse, or recycle, then maybe lab testing might be the next best thing.