The seed of the idea for Tom Szaky's company, TerraCycle, was planted on a road trip to Montreal during his freshman year at Princeton. In high school in Canada, he and a friend grew a marijuana plant they dubbed "Marley."
The plant hadn't fared well on a diet of water and chemicals, but on that road trip, Szaky discovered it was flourishing, thanks to worm-poop fertilizer.
Szaky began to develop his business idea at Princeton, where he was part of a team that entered a business-plan competition. The idea: Take people's garbage (a service for which a fee could be charged), feed it to tons of worms, get worm poop, then sell it to the masses.
In Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle is Redefining Green Business (Portfolio, $15, 208 pages) Szaky tells the story of his journey from Hungarian immigrant to college dropout (he left in his sophomore year to build the business) to CEO of a company that might be making a dent in our planet's waste problem.
Some waste-centric facts:
•Americans pay $1 trillion every year to dispose of waste that could be fed to worms.
•A major U.S. retailer tosses 35 million gift cards every year — the equivalent of 42 truckloads.
Although Szaky and his team didn't win Princeton's competition, they won others, including the Carrot Capital competition. For that one, they were eligible for a $1 million prize that TerraCycle turned down because the team disagreed with Carrot's plans for the company.
As with other gonzo entrepreneurs, Szaky views failures as setbacks rather than derailments.
For example, in 2004, the TerraCycle team was on the conventional path to brand-building: Start with small retailers and trade shows, and build a foundation that leads to a major contract with a megaretailer.
Results were less than impressive, so Szaky and his colleagues called big-box stores several times daily. After 35 days and hundreds of calls, they scored a meeting with HomeDepot.com, which placed TerraCycle's first large order.
TerraCycle still sells its flagship product, launched in 2001 — liquid worm-poop fertilizer, packaged in used bottles.
Today, the company's products are sold at Whole Foods, Home Depot and Walmart stores, and it has partnerships with Kraft, Target, Honest Tea, Stonyfield Farm and others.
Those relationships focus on upcycling — that is, finding new ways to use unrecyclable waste: a pile of plastic bags becomes a sturdy tote, yogurt cups are transformed into plant holders, and cookie wrappers form the cover of a notebook. More important, the companies get valuable publicity for committing to an eco-friendly endeavor.
"Brigades" are essential to the company's business model: Schools, churches, wineries and non-profits provide space to store boxes or envelopes that can be filled with bottles, corks or candy-bar wrappers. For each item collected, TerraCycle makes a donation (typically 2 cents) to a charity. "People were willing to work for free when they felt they were doing some good or learning something valuable," Szaky writes.
While a profit-making enterprise first, TerraCycle is fulfilling several needs for society:
•Offering consumers a way to feel good about consumerism.
•Giving major corporations an opportunity to do good with the waste they create.
•Giving shoppers reasonably priced, eco-friendly choices. "It is not enough to just offer a green choice at a premium price; the goal is to make green products at a competitive price," he writes.
There is, however, the issue of what upcycled wrappers and containers used to contain: sugary drinks, cookies and candy.
Is there conflict in upcycling waste to make products when that waste, often collected by children, comes from products that may contribute to obesity? And what of selling to big-box stores, so often demonized for their effect on community spirit and local businesses, not to mention their environmental impact?
Those questions aside, TerraCycle is an innovative, determined company that turned a seemingly kooky idea into an Earth-friendly moneymaker.
And the book itself has eco-friendly cred: It's printed on 100% recycled materials, and the cover can be folded and taped into an envelope for use in upcycling partner Bear Naked's granola bags.
Linda M. Castellitto is a writer based in Raleigh, N.C.