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TerraCycle: Eliminating the Idea of Waste

It’s quite amazing how the concept of waste is so prevalent in today’s society. Wikipedia defines waste as unwanted or unusable materials. This definition of waste is relatively new if one thinks about the fact that waste only emerged as a household term once we began to systematically extract materials from the earth’s crust that are not easily and/or naturally reinserted into the Earth’s natural cycle. But growing up with the very idea of a trash can underneath the kitchen sink has created the perception that waste is as common and necessary as oxygen, as unavoidable as the winter seasons, and as natural as sleeping. But if we step back from our anthropocentric worldview and reestablish our interconnection with nature, we’ll begin to realize that waste has no place in a sustainable society. Could you imagine not having the luxury of dumping to the curb batteries, plastic containers, seran wrap, food waste, your old cell phone, bounce sheets, your old ipod, a stained shirt, chocolate bar wrapper never to be seen again once picked up by the garbageman?

The growing headache of waste disposal and the disappearing space available to dump the waste is foreshadowing a society where this predicament might actually exist. Terracyle is a small entrepreneurial business fixed on “upcycling” waste into new products. The business started in New Jersey when the founder Tom Szaky learned that worm poop is an excellent all-natural fertilizer. This gave him the idea that perhaps all products could be made from waste. Emulating nature’s approach to waste, TerraCycle considers waste as a resource for something else. The worm-poop fertilizer product, for example, is bottled in old soda and water bottles. You can find the product in Wal-Mart and Home Depot in a range of different bottle sizes and types. The interesting thing though is that the company has involved thousands of community groups, organizations, and schools to help collect the bottles in return for money used for community or school events.

Only about 23% of plastic drinking bottles are recycled meaning that 77% end up in landfills. Now you may think that you’re doing your job by recycling your plastic water/soda bottles. But if you follow the journey of a recycled bottle, you’ll learn that the energy required to crush the bottles is enormous in addition to the fact that we typically send the bottles overseas, emitting tonnes of carbon. TerraCycle works to eliminate these additional steps by thinking of waste as a resource in the same way that nature thinks of waste as food. Due to the success of the TerraCycle fertilizer product, they’ve expanded to other products like tote bags made from drink pouches, corkboards made from cork, and laptop cases made from drink pouches. If you go to their website (Terracyle website) you’ll notice that they’ve made a call for candy wrappers and drink pouches at $0.02 each.

This company amazes me because not only have they come up with some amazing products made from waste, but they’ve been able to convince behemoths like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target on the customer side to stock their products and have attracted the likes of Mars, Fritolay and Stonyfield on the supply side to assist in researching how the waste from their products can be turned into new products. On top of all this, they’ve harnessed the power of communities to collect the waste, thus creating awareness among our youth that perhaps the very notion of waste is ill-founded when we consider the state of our environment and the current practices we use to create these same products from scratch.

When I write about the need for change in business cirricula, I’m referring to the need to build in frameworks that teach future managers how to build business models that incorporate this greater complexity rather than reduce it. TerraCycle is weaving together the need for economic sustainability, social sustainability, and ecological sustainability not as separate isolated initiatives but as an integrated business model with zero tradeoffs.

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