Social Impact

Bee-ing the Change

Photo of Tom Mooradian, from PepsiCo Recylcing, holding beehive
Swirl pattern

You probably don’t think about what happens to that plastic bottle once you drop it in a recycling bin, but Tom Mooradian does. Meet the guy behind PepsiCo Recycling whose commitment to sustainability is abuzz in his own backyard.

Tom Mooradian doesn’t mind getting stung by bees. In fact, he likes it. “When I was a kid, I used to pass the time in the yard just playing with bees and actually picking them up. Most kids would probably scream and be scared, but I would let them crawl onto my hand and play with them,” he says.

That fearless young boy grew up and now lives on a half-acre plot that he’s dubbed “an urban farm” in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and 4-year old daughter. They have a large vegetable garden, a roof covered in solar panels, a motley crew of chickens and, of course, three beehives.

PepsiCo Recycling guru Tom Mooradian and family on farm

And just like when he was a kid, Mooradian is the only one who wants to play with the bees. “My wife is fascinated but scared to death of them,” he says with a laugh. He isn’t — and welcomes a few stings every now and then. “Some people treat arthritis with bee stings, with the bee venom. And I do feel like it lubricates my joints. It gets my blood flowing.”

Given his mission at PepsiCo, it’s good that he can take a few stings to get to the honey. Working on sustainability can be a tough endeavor because the mission is so large especially when you work at a global corporation that sells products in over 200 countries every single day. But Mooradian isn’t afraid.

“A lot of people just assume big food or big agriculture, or whatever they want to tag us, just has a pure profit motive and doesn’t care about anything else,” he says. “So, the fact that I have a role dedicated to sustainability really opens up a lot of eyes.”

Going Full Circular

As Senior Manager, Environmental Sustainability for PepsiCo Beverages North America, Mooradian helps set the agenda for the PepsiCo Recycling program, which engages and informs the public on the best recycling habits while also working behind the scenes to make recycling more efficient overall. It’s a lot like beekeeping. You have to worry about the whole hive, but the health of the hive is dependent on what the bees are doing.

Most consumer goods are part of a linear economy: They’re manufactured, used and then disposed of. Mooradian’s goal at PepsiCo Recycling is to help create a circular economy for plastics. In a circular economy, goods are manufactured, used and then recycled, regenerated or repurposed.

This circular economy appears in nature—and bees are one cornerstone of it. Bees pollinate the flowers, plants and trees that animals need. Right now, he’s trying to be just as essential as the bees. But in place of pollination, he’s trying education.

Explaining the Right Kind of Recycling

Mooradian has the posture of a marathon runner and the approachable demeanor of a popular mayor. It’s perfect for his public—and favorite—role, crisscrossing the country to promote PepsiCo’s Recycle Rally, a free program offering funding, resources and incentives to enable and encourage K-12 schools to recycle – there’s even an annual recycling collection competition schools can participate in. And the program is working. Participation shot up 550% from 2016 to 2019 and there are now Recycle Rally schools in all 50 states. Since the program began in 2010, participating schools have recycled more than 34.5 million pounds of PET, HDPE, aluminum, fiber, glass, and other plastics and metals, diverting these materials from landfills.

One school that stands out to Mooradian is Prairie View K-8 in Ogallala, Nebraska , population 4,500. “I had never heard of the city before they became a Recycle Rally standout,” he says. The elementary school’s team consistently lands in the top ten on the national leaderboards for the collection contest. In 2016, they got second place after collecting 565,578 containers. The students have become a point of pride for the town and for Mooradian.

And that is just one example. More than 7,000 schools across the U.S. participate in the Recycle Rally program. All those cans and bottles students collect go on to recycling centers, where recyclables are sorted and hopefully get repurposed into new cans or bottles. That fact continually amazes Mooradian, but he has even bigger hopes for the Recycle Rally program.

Kids from Recycle Rally program by PepsiCo Recycling

“We need to increase access to food-grade recycled PET, which is the type of plastic that we put in our [recycled] beverage bottles,” Mooradian explains. “And right now, the supply isn’t there and everybody who recycles thinks, ‘How could that be?’” The problem, as he tells it, is that a lot of recycled plastic isn’t clean enough to be food-grade recycled plastic. Most consumers use single-stream recycling—putting plastic bottles into one bin where they co-mingle with other recyclables and can get contaminated. And recycled plastic that’s been contaminated doesn’t always end up meeting food-grade standards. “PepsiCo isn’t going to put lower quality material in our bottles,” he says. Bottom line: To create a circular economy, we need better recycling. “So, we’re working with the collection points and the consumers to educate them on what not to put in their bins.”

Behind the scenes, he works to improve the collection, processing and sorting of recyclables so that more uncontaminated plastics make it through the process. He partners with non-governmental organizations and environmental groups on new models that could maximize the life cycle of the plastic. For example, PepsiCo has teamed up with LoopTM Industries, which has developed a chemical recycling technology that can turn low-value plastic into food-grade plastic. “We’re working across the whole system, trying to lift the system so that we can increase the circularity of the economy and not just recycling rates alone,” he explains.

PepsiCo Recycling Recycle Rally team photo

Switching from Supply Chain to Sustainability

Mooradian’s career at PepsiCo didn’t start off focused on sustainability. After graduating from Michigan State University in 2002 with a degree in packaging, he joined Gatorade’s research and development (R&D) team in Barrington, Illinois. “Coming out of college, I was pretty athletic and interested in sports—I really loved the idea of working on the brand Gatorade. So that’s what pulled me in,” he says.

Out of the office, he channeled his athletic enthusiasm into outdoor pursuits and started leading hikes and nature walks for local conservation groups. “I was just learning about sustainable lifestyles and helping others to get involved,” he says. But then his off-hours interests started to meld with his on-the-clock work.

He joined the Barrington Green Team, a dozen or so PepsiCo employees who wanted to create an eco-friendly office. One of his first steps there was to create a CSA (community supported agriculture) subscription, where each week a local farmer and hercrew dropped off boxes of fresh local produce. “And it was really fulfilling and exciting. I got to know the farmer, and that really piqued my interest in gardening.”

PepsiCo Recycling guru Tom Mooradian watering plants

Meanwhile, he was promoted to Principal Engineer, Supply Chain Technology & Innovation, and he was able to make big strides in bringing sustainable practices into PepsiCo’s manufacturing operations. In one industry-shaking move, he and his team led the transition of the entire Naked Juice brand packaging into 100% recycled PET. That move, which was covered by USA Today and ABC News, saved over 57,000 barrels of oil per year.

The itch to focus more on sustainability had started to take hold. He’d moved to the city of Bloomington, Indiana and bought that half acre of land he lives on now. He planted a small garden and was starting to read books and watch YouTube videos about beekeeping. Then, in 2010, PepsiCo created a new sustainability team. Mooradian started to work with them tangentially on creating more sustainable packaging—and quickly realized he wanted to be more than tangential.

But his career in supply chain engineering—a well-honored field at PepsiCo—was progressing quickly so his bosses were surprised when he said he wanted to change gears. “They were looking out for me,” he explains. “They weren’t trying to stomp on my dreams, but their first reaction was that it was ‘too niche.’” In the end, what won out was another well-honored thing at PepsiCo: Letting people stretch their careers and move into roles outside of their background and that reinforced his feelings about PepsiCo. “I really like the emphasis on doing the right thing and Winning with Purpose, which has been a big reason why I’ve stayed at PepsiCo as long as I have.”

Getting Spring Fever

The middle of spring might be Mooradian’s favorite time of year. For one thing, he gets to put on his protective headgear and go check on his hives. “The first time I crack open the hive and see the bees survived the winter, that’s probably the biggest thrill for me,” he says. Shortly after that is when he gets to hit the road and hand out those oversized checks to school assembly rooms full of proud Recycle Rally students.

In 2015, he went to Ogallala to deliver one of those checks. The tiny town sits on the intersection of State Roads 30 and 26, has a two-screen mom-and-pop movie theater, and is best known for Lake McConaughy, a 22-mile long lake that was created by the Kingsley Dam and is full most spring and summer weekends with people water skiing and fishing.

When Mooradian arrived, a custodian named Rodney and several student leaders eagerly guided him around Main Street. Rodney pointed out the collection points at local businesses and bright signs that alerted locals to recycling opportunities. The last stop was at the parking lot of Lake McConaughy where the students showed off their anti-littering and recycling campaign and described how they had inspired a bunch of tourists to get involved in their rally.

Up close, he saw the difference the program made, the excitement the kids felt at what they’d accomplished and how they’d become eco-influencers in their own town. “At that point, I felt like the impact of Recycle Rally had exceeded my wildest dreams,” he says. “The young leaders’ enthusiasm was enough for people who didn’t even have kids in the school to become really involved, consistent recyclers!”

In 2018, PepsiCo Recycling made the Recycle Rally materials open source so that anyone, not just a school group, could access all the information these students had. Mooradian had seen what it could do and wanted to see how the excitement could spread even further.

“Anytime I pry open the hive box and look inside, there’s so much activity going on. The bees are so dedicated to what they’re doing; they’re buzzing around,” he says. “If you’re standing a few feet away, you don’t get to feel that energy, but as soon as you get immersed in it … it’s contagious. It just energizes me.”

Mooradian is talking about his bees, but he could just as easily be talking about the thousands of kids across the U.S. who will become mini-agents of change spreading the message of recycling as far as they can.