Revolution in a Bottle

Smoke pot, drop out of college, scoop poop for a living, literally. That sounds like a cautionary anti-drug message, but Tom Szaky, who really did toke up a green worm poop business idea then drop out of Princeton to pursue it, is now the proud CEO of TerraCycle, a famous eco-business that started out bottling worm poop fertilizer and today churns out a new upcycled product a week.

Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot — all these huge chain megastores carry TerraCycle products, whether it’s the upcycled juice box pencil case, the disposable-made-reusable plastic tote bag, or eco-friendly window cleaner. All of this started, though, with Tom learning that worm poop made his pot plant thrive — and coming up with a half-baked business idea. And Tom’s new book, Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle Is Redefining Green Business, traces TerraCycle’s hazy journey — from shoveling maggot-infested cafeteria waste into a chipper to cutting deals with multinational companies.

Far from the usual boring business book, Revolution in a Bottle is a fast-paced entertaining read, chronicling TerraCycle’s many near-catastrophes as well as with Tom’s own thoughts on waste, eco-capitalism, green consumer habits, and PR strategies. All of this makes for fascinating reading for would-be eco-entrepreneurs — as well as frugal environmentalists who like free stuff!

After all, TerraCycle kept its overhead low primarily by working with garbage, taking unwanted food waste and turning it into worm poop fertilizer, bottled in unwanted used bottles. By scavenging for others’ discards, Terracycle even furnished its early offices with free office furniture and decorated its factory with free graffiti art — a move that also improved the company’s relationship with the community around it.

How did TerraCycle get so big so quickly while many older eco-companies — Seventh Generation, for example — are still quite small? Tom says it’s because he has no direct competition. “Today there are fundamentally two types of companies trying to make eco-friendly products: big companies that operate on the traditional capitalist model and small companies that operate on what you might call the environmental profit model. The former focus more on price but not environmental innovation; the latter, on environmental impact but charge a premium for their products.”

TerraCycle, on the other hand, offers products at competitive prices — and sells those products at what many environmentalists would call big bad companies. “Fundamental of eco-capitalism: unless you make the prduct equally economical for consumers, they aren’t going to buy a product they don’t know about,” Tom opines. And unless you’re in the big stores, you’re never going to reach the unconverted general consumer — most of whom, according to Tom, will happily choose your eco-friendly product over a conventional one if the prices are comparable.

TerraCycle also gets great press — and Tom offers a lot of PR suggestions, including tip #1: “Do not hire a public relations firm.” Whether or not you agree with that one, Tom gives some great examples of how company challenges can be turned into great PR opportunities. For example, the “bottle brigades” set up at schools to collect used bottles and other upcyclable waste products for TerraCycle created a lot of time-consuming work for the staff — but also generated positive local press at every little spot. A lawsuit from Scotts was a legal nightmare — but also helped TerraCycle get a lot of attention and coverage as the green underdog fighting the good eco-fight.

Now, Tom wants to BE the press. “It became apparent to me that once you’ve been written about enough, the next phase is to become the content,” Tom writes. “By the time this book is published, the TerraCycle blog will be syndicated in over 30 blogs and we may have columns in a number of magazines.” Why have other writers review your book when you can write your own positive review?

We’ll soon see how successful TerraCycle’s venture into becoming the media is. Meanwhile, I do wish Tom had grappled more seriously with some of the sticky issues that TerraCycle’s business model brings up. Namely, Tom talks glowingly about his company’s work with “sponsored waste” — getting companies to donate 2 cents or so per wrapper (i.e. Oreo packaging) collected by trash brigades, then upcycling those wrappers into new products (i.e. pencil pouches). Sure, we can see the benefits in this practice — money for schools and community groups participating as a brigade, less trash for the landfills, more eco-friendly products — which Tom talks in length about. What Tom doesn’t address is the fact that TerraCycle’s providing both excellent PR and a lot of ad space for multinational corporations that are selling, for the most part, unhealthy, uneco foods.

By marrying TerraCycle’s brand to, say, Kraft’s, “sponsored waste” gives green cache to companies that are not otherwise green. Sure, upcycling the wrappers of oreos kids are gonna eat anyway seems like a good idea. But my fear is that sponsored waste allows for greenwashing that could encourage consumption of MORE high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils created by factory farming and generally unsustainable practices, sold by multinational companies that routinely lobby to preserve less-than-eco food production and trade.

To be fair, TerraCycle does upcycle wrappers of more responsible companies like Honest Tea too. In fact, Revolution In A Bottle’s paper jacket actually doubles as an upcycling wrapper container — and great advertisement — for Bear Naked. Enthuses the back cover: “Fill it with a used Bear Naked granola bag and drop it in a mailbox to become a part of TerraCycle’s eco-revolution! Bear Naked will even donate $1 to plant a tree in American rainforests, up to $5000.”

Yes, I’m glad the book sponsor isn’t Kraft. If you were me, would you now go out and buy a bag ‘o Bear Naked granola to mail in the cover?