Late last week, I had the pleasure of touring the Trenton, N.J. offices of TerraCycle, a “waste solution development” firm with the most admirable mission to "eliminate the idea of waste."
Unfamiliar with TerraCycle? Well, if you’ve ever seen or owned a tote bag made from Dorito wrappers, a coupon holder made from tortilla packaging, or a Christmas tree skirt made from Capri Sun pouches, chances are that it came from TerraCycle. And, of course, there’s the company’s signature product, launched in 2001 by vermicomposting Princeton student-turned-eco-entrepreneur Tom Szaky: liquefied worm poop plant fertilizer packaged in recycled plastic two-liter soda bottles.
In addition to liquefied worm poop and trashy handbags, TerraCycle offers dozens upon dozens of additional consumer products made from recycled and upcycled materials ranging from plastic lumber lawn furniture to M&M’s wrapper kites. (More provocative prototype designs such as wall clocks made from pregnancy tests and picture frames made from cigarette butts do exist, but don’t expect to find them on the shelves at your local Target ... at least, yet). Of the mostly pre-consumer waste collected by TerraCycle (more on that in a bit), 95 percent is recycled, 4 percent is upcycled, and 1 percent is reused. To date the company has collected over 2,432,696,434 units of waste.
So how does TerraCycle amass all the raw materials for their products? As mentioned, a majority is sent to TerraCycle as pre-consumer waste by various companies. The rest of it — the hard/impossible to recycle post-consumer waste that many folks end up tossing in the garbage — is largely collected through the company's popular Brigades program. Most, but not all, Bridgades have point-raising incentives and are often instituted as fundraising schemes at schools and nonprofit organizations. Alternately, the points earned through collecting waste and sending it to TerraCycle can also be used towards charitable contributions. TerraCycle Brigades span across a wide range of categories usually paired with a corporate sponsor: Fllip-flops, toothbrushes, chip bags, wine pouches, Solo cups, printer cartridges, energy bar wrappers, and the list goes on and on. Most recently, the company launched a Tom’s of Maine Natural Care Brigade, which also entails a sweepstakes.
But perhaps the pièce de résistance of this remarkable, rubbish-based enterprise is the company’s Trenton headquarters. Although TerraCycle has expanded in recent years into more than 20 countries including Brazil, Israel, Germany, the U.K., and Canada, the converted warehouse that TerraCycle U.S. calls home ... well, it truly walks the talk. A hoary cliche, I know but it couldn't be more true.
After being treated to revamp by a team of “TerraCycle Design Junkies” last year, nearly everything in the massive space, right down to the conference room table, is now made from reclaimed or recycled materials. Chains of plastic shampoo bottles dangle from the ceilings, lighting fixtures are obscured by sculptural Styrofoam arrangements, and every surface that's not covered with graffiti is home to an upcycled object d'art. It's an eye-popping scene that as the New York Times most appropriately described as “appealingly off-kilter” much like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The space is overwhelming, outrageous, awe-inspiring. And for a company that specializes in collecting and making things out of waste that's usually landfilled, it doesn't smell.
I’ve been a longtime admirer of the company and frequently feature TerraCycle products and projects, but my visit to TC HQ last week, guided by PR manager Stacey Krauss, was a first. Here’s a look at just some of the many rubbish-based highlights at not only the Terracyle offices but at the adjacent design studio and nearby “homebase” warehouse (it's just one of 14 across the globe) as well.
No, the graffiti didn't come with the building.Each summer, TerraCycle hosts an annual Graffiti Jam in which local and national graffiti artists are invited to help "redecorate."
Upcycled fashions on display at TerraCycle HQ.
For all of your recycled Dorito bags needs ...
The product that started it all: TerraCycle All Purpose Plant Food made from worm poop.
The conference room table (with working doorbell).
Walls of soda bottles separate the central conference room from the rest of the office space.
Outdoor courtyard. The mulch is made from upcycled wine corks and flip-flops and furniture is made from recycled plastic timber.
Beautiful chaos: Inside the TerraCycle design studio.
Machine-assisted upcycling magic.
A bounty of pre-consumer waste at TerraCycle's design studio.
Attention Target shoppers ...
Not your typical office signage ...
Extruder machine + cigarette butts at the TerraCycle lab (the company launched a Cigarette Waste Brigade in Canada this past summer).
Another view of the TerraCycle lab.
Oh you know ... just another office chair clad in Capri Sun drink pouches.
Concert pianist Soyeon Lee wore this Nina Valenti-designed gown made from thousands of Honest Tea drink pouches during a 2008 performance at Carnegie Hall.
Wine corks at TerraCycle's Trenton warehouse. Anyone lose a phone?
A bin full o' Elmer's.