Dear Lazy Environmentalist,

Can anything be done with garbage besides composting and recycling?

If there were one company on pace to redefine America’s relationship with its trash, it would be Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle. The company that began with its signature plant food — made from worm poop, packaged in empty Pepsi bottles and sold at the likes of Home Depot and Wal-Mart — has evolved into an innovation powerhouse that continually introduces new products made entirely from waste.

Take the E-Water trash cans and recycling bins available at OfficeMax for $10.99 each and made from crushed computers and fax machines (that would otherwise end up in a landfill). Or the rainbarrels and composters made from Kendall-Jackson oak wine barrels that sell for $99 each at Sam’s Club. They’re both prime examples of a company that sees opportunity where others see garbage.

In 2008, TerraCycle announced a major partnership with Kraft Foods to take used packaging from brands like Oreo cookies, Chips Ahoy!, Balance bars, South Beach Living bars and Capri Sun beverages and transform them into attractive consumer products. Cookie wrappers will soon be fused into sheets of waterproof fabric and then transformed into umbrellas, shower curtains, backpacks, place mats and more. Energy bar wrappers will make backpacks and purses. Drink pouches are already being given new life in a wide assortment of bags, including funky totes ($7.99 to $11.99), messenger bags ($19.99), backpacks ($11.99) and lunchboxes ($7.99). 

How does TerraCycle get its hands on so much garbage? By signing up trash collecting “brigades” across the United States. Thousands of schools, nonprofit organizations and business offices are collecting waste and sending it to TerraCycle’s facility. In exchange, the schools and nonprofits gain an additional income stream or opt (as do offices) to donate proceeds to a local charity of their choosing. The program is an ingenuous way for TerraCycle to build a broad network of trash collectors while simultaneously encouraging children (and adults, too) to take responsibility for their own waste and providing them with an opportunity to effect environmental change.

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Excerpted from Josh Dorfman's latest book, The Lazy Environmentalist on a Budget.

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Photo: Pascal \o//Flickr