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Entrepreneur blazes new trail with old packages

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The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT) - In 2003, an investor offered 21-year-old Princeton dropout Tom Szaky a million bucks.

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By Sandy Bauers
McClatchy Newspapers (
4/24/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Home & Food

Szaky turned him down.

Not that he didn't need the money. He was sleeping in a makeshift office, showering in the gym, and pondering a cash balance of zero.

The guy wanted Szaky to lose the environmental pitch with his business plan, except that was the plan.

Today, Szaky is glad he didn't give in.

Szaky has become a titan of trash. His company, TerraCycle, transforms waste headed for the landfill into new products.

TerraCycle makes kites from Oreo cookie wrappers. Reusable bags from Capri Sun drink pouches. Coasters from the center of old vinyl records.

New uses for milk jugs, circuit boards, and yogurt tubs.

He calls it not recycling, but upcycling. Better yet, "TerraCycling," which he hopes will join the common lexicon, like "googling."

TerraCycle sales have doubled every year since 2004, projected to be $12 million to $15 million this year.

Along the way, last year he was able to send back $100,000 to thousands of schools, charities, and other groups that collect the trash he wants.

And the spiky-haired guy who defaults to scruffy _ stubble, jeans, and a T-shirt _ is worth more than $3 million. He's not quite sure. Who has the time to keep track?

"It's been a wild ride," Szaky says.

He doesn't see garbage anymore, just opportunity.

"My worldview is that garbage doesn't exist in nature. It's a man-made idea," he says. "It can't exist in the long run, or we won't be around."

This is big. He's headed for an Earth Day interview on ABC's "Good Morning America." He'll probably talk about his book, released April 1: "Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle Is Redefining Green Business."

On Wednesday, the National Geographic channel debuted "Garbage Moguls," a special that follows Szaky's zany cadres to odiferous locales _ a landfill, an auto junkyard _ to mine for materials.

Could his world possibly look any better?

Szaky's story _ part luck, part pluck _ started with worm poop. His plan was to have a massive vermiculture operation, making compost with worms that would then fertilize gardens.

When he needed cheap containers for the product, he and a few buddies scrounged plastic bottles from recycling bins. (Princeton police who caught them in the act were suspicious but let them go.)

Gradually, the no-waste notion took hold. And evolved.

Turns out companies that used unrecyclable packaging wanted to help.

TerraCycle offers them an opportunity to green up their image by funding a "brigade" program that signs up schools, churches, and other groups, paying them two cents an item for the stuff TerraCycle needs.

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Students at Patterson Elementary on Bustleton Avenue in West Philadelphia sent in more than 1,000 drink pouches _ with 700 more ready to go _ and are giving their money to Alex's Lemonade Stand, the cancer charity.

"The kids love it," says Erika Buscaglia, a phys-ed teacher. Not only that, but now they're walking around with lunch pouches and pencil cases that TerraCycle has made from wrappers, possibly the ones they collected.

On Monday, the UPS truck backed up to the door of the Trenton, N.J., plant with 263 packages. That's the norm. From 15,000 to 20,000 drink pouches arrive every day.

The company is still growing. Also that day, TerraCycle made its biggest deal yet, with Mars Inc., to recycle packaging from more than 20 of its products, including M&Ms, Snickers and Milky Way bars, Wrigley's gum, and Life Savers.

"Our primary objective is to eliminate waste," said Mars sustainability vice president Richard Ware, who praised the "funky-looking" cases, zipper bags, and other products the Mars brands will be on.

TerraCycle's origins are in Princeton, N.J. But it wound up in Trenton when Szaky needed a cheap facility. "If you had to find a human equivalent of discarded soda bottles," it would be depressed cities such as Trenton, Szaky wrote in his book.

The building almost writhes with graffiti painted by the locals. In fact, they repaint annually; he provides the music and barbecue.

Inside, vice president Albe Zakes, 24, jazzed by latte on an empty stomach, keeps up a steady patter _ showing off products, ticking off statistics, noting how even the office furniture is secondhand.

Workers are filling bottles with fertilizer pellets _ worm-poop products are still 20 to 30 percent of the business.

More than a few of the plant's 47 employees are getting a new life, as well. TerraCycle calls itself a "second-chance" employer _ more a philosophy than a program _ which means it doesn't check criminal records. Do the job, and you can stay.

Back in the front office, "chief design junkie" Tiffany Threadgould is testing a bag made from Scott paper towel packaging. Her earrings, by the way, incorporate discs made from credit cards.

Worker Clive Cunningham is experimenting with heat and pressure to see how he can fuse various materials.

A recent breakthrough is thin boards made from shredded foil pouches and plastic milk jugs, a colorfully speckled concoction dubbed "technovomit." Possible uses to be determined.

About a mile across town, at a dilapidated warehouse _ never mind the leaks and bird droppings _ sits a cache of materials the TerraCycle folks consider a gold mine.

It's roll upon roll of printed packaging that the companies never used. It was a misprint. Or the cookie ingredients changed.

Companies used to pay to incinerate or landfill the material. Now, TerraCycle takes it.

Clothing makers have sent boxes of leftover fabric. 3M has sent the trimmings from sponge-backed scrubbers. Any ideas?

By now, TerraCycle has deals with 11 major U.S. companies to take at least part of their waste _ either straight from the factory or from the brigades, after it has been used.

An additional half dozen deals are imminent, Szaky says.

It's all a weird alchemy that somehow keeps growing and intertwining. The company logo _ now being printed on some of the packaging that can't have the recycling logo _ is a combo of the recycling and infinity symbols.

"At the end of the day, there is a cachet to the brand. Capri Sun is trying to do its part," said the company's brand manager, Vinay Sharma.

TerraCycle recently sold on eBay's charity site a designer dress made entirely from Capri Sun pouches, with proceeds going to Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

It sold for $162.50, and the buyer, Mercia Gomez-Powell of Atlanta, said she could not even wear the dress. It was too small.

But she's a recycled-goods designer herself and could not resist. "I was like, oh my God, this is beautiful."

Szaky's book has a removable paper cover that can be used to send back Bear Naked granola pouches _ destined, perhaps to be shower curtains. For each bag, Bear Naked is donating a dollar to the Arbor Day Foundation.

Go figure. A book that plants trees.

In the beginning, no one would return Szaky's calls. Now, TerraCycle products are sold at Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Petco.

These days, the company is rolling out products at a rate of one a week. The numbers keep mounting: 72 million drink pouches since the program began, 16 million cookie wrappers, 5.5 million energy-bar wrappers;

Some have cautioned: Slow down, don't get too big.

Szaky isn't interested. "It's like this adrenaline rush the whole time," he says.

"We are aggressively pushing the envelope on what's reasonable."


© 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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