Upcycling Packaging: A New Business Concept

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By Ted Mininni

Entrepreneurialism is alive and well in America. Just ask Tom Szaky, the founder of TerraCycle.

His big idea: a commercialized liquid plant food made from biological waste—or as Szaky calls it “worm poop”, in reused soda bottles from school recycling programs, after making donations for them. Cleaning the bottles, slapping homey labels on them, and fitting them with trigger sprays other manufacturers couldn’t use, or didn’t want, enabled Szaky to finally bring his product to market.  

In a recent Brand Packaging article dubbed: “Spinning Garbage into Gold”, Szaky shares some terrific ideas that ought to inspire a new generation of business owners.

Szaky dropped out of Princeton and worked at the new business for three years until finally securing some retail distribution, thanks to Wal-Mart and The Home Depot. He hasn’t looked back. His philosophy: constantly finding ways to develop consumer products and consumer product packaging from consumer waste. Even better: refusing to price his green products at the high end of the spectrum, as some of his competitors are. “Since we’re not doing it, we’re gaining a lot”, Szaky is quoted as saying.

TerraCycle now enjoys distribution as a staple in thousands of retail lawn and garden departments, adding products like deer repellant and compost bins to their original plant food product. According to the Brand Packaging article, the company is now developing consumer products in many categories: household cleaners, reusable totes, office products, and even Christmas ornaments. 

On the packaging front, a Stonyfield Farm challenge to TerraCycle to find an alternative use for the company’s polypropylene yogurt cups (since they aren’t recycled much), yielded the invention of planting pots, with Stonyfield funding the entire collection program, thank you very much. 

When Honest Tea began funding TerraCycle to reuse its used drink pouches, Kraft’s Capri Sun and Kool Aid brands likewise, joined the effort. Net result? Recycled drink pouches manufactured into accessories now being sold at Target. As Szaky pointed out, for brands like Capri Sun, his reuse of their packaging solves a major problem since their packaging isn’t recyclable, and would end up in landfills.

High volume consumer brands: Balance Bar, Clif Bar, South Beach diet bars, Chips Ahoy and Oreos have subsequently come aboard. What TerraCycle is doing isn’t recycling in the classic sense. The company refers to its reuse of packaging as “upcycling”. Definition: ‘creative use of the shape and characteristics of existing packaging instead of crushing, mulching, melting it down or reforming it’.

Szaky loves what he refers to as his “Sponsored Waste” initiative. “You get paid for your raw materials and then you’re paid for your finished product.” While TerraCycle still sponsors collection programs in schools and churches, the company sees Sponsored Waste as its future. Apparently there’s money in collecting and repurposing packaging for new products: TerraCycle has posted a 300% growth rate for the past four years.

Questions:

  • What other kinds of consumer products would you like to see made from recycled waste and repurposed packaging?
  • Do you think more businesses will emerge based on the TerraCycle model?
  • Do you think we can eventually eliminate most of our garbage by thinking in these terms?

I’d love to hear from you. Please comment after the jump.