a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

TerraCycle – the future of eco-capitalism

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Paying attention pays off. It’s also fun and interesting and exciting because not only do you notice what is changing in the world and in yourself, but you become a PART of the change. You know what’s coming – a story.

I was having dinner at a neighboring co-op and noticed a collection bin for wine corks. Cool, I thought, I’ll start saving my wine corks and bring them in next time I’m here. I almost walked away at that point, but something in me wanted to know a bit more. What about those synthetic corks that even organic wineries are starting to use? The small sign on the receptable said they would accept both. Oh, more cool, I thought and walked away again. But, what will they be used for? I continued to wonder. I was out the door now, but turned around and went back to look at the sign once more, taking note of the web site listed at the bottom:

It took me two more days, but I did find a moment to visit this site and this is where the fun, exciting and interesting part comes in! TerraCycle is eco-capitalism at it’s finest! A combination of waste reuse, recycling and upcycling, this company began in a dorm room at Princeton in 2001 with worm poop. Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer created a business plan for a contest sponsored by Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, one that would would eliminate the idea of waste in manufacturing. They began collecting dining hall waste, composting it with worms to formulate their own liquid “worm gin”, a potent plant food/fertilizer. They found their first investor that following summer and took a leave of absence from school to continue their dream of a profitable company that could eliminate and leverage waste.

In 2004, they were offered one million dollars from a venture capitalist, but turned it down in order to stay true to their eco-business path – one where a business could make manufacturing a circular process, be more environmentally-friendly, more socially-responsible, AND more profitable. Composting from waste fit this criteria, but what about packaging? Their answer – look back to the waste stream! collecting plastic bottles for their liquid products of garden and cleaning products, purchasing spray nozzles and shipping boxes from the plentiful “wasted” rejects and “over runs” has allowed them not only to negate the need for any raw materials, but keep this waste out of the landfills and keep their retail prices competitive.

It’s 2009 and obviously, they have proven their model works. Their website is packed with all kinds of products both recycled from compostable waste and upcycled from other waste like plastic tubs, candy wrappers and juice pouches and made into things like fire logs, fertilizers, office and school supplies, birdfeeders, even rainbarrels and composters. Their packaging still comes from the waste stream through efficient and effective collection programs offered to schools, individuals and organizations.

The New York Times has called these products the most eco-friendly products ever made and a Phd. in Plant Pathology deems the gardening products more effective than any traditional brand on the market. Those Princeton students? They’re still in charge, long hair, baseball caps and all. I couldn’t get enough of them. Check out this video. I started reading their “Eco-Capitalist Guidebook” and couldn’t stop until I finished all six chapters.

“With green becoming mainstream and more and more economical every year, the field is ripe for modern eco-capitalism to thrive,and in the process bringing our economy closer to a “natural” tipping point.” Like I said, it pays off to pay attention.

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