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Turning Garbage Into Gold

From worm farmer to CEO, how one person's vision has led to one of the most revolutionary companies

Submitted by: Alicia Korten

Posted: Oct 16, 2011 – 10:06 PM EST

Tags: recycle, terracycle, csr, sustainability, brand, ethics


By Alicia Korten, CEO of ReNual

Last month my fascination with how values and purpose can drive corporate culture, products and brand took me to Trenton, New Jersey to visit a company called Terracycle [www.terracycle.net]. Terracycle, it turns out, is an incredible example of how staying true to your values and purpose can translate into a robust business.

Terracycle has pioneered a business model that is not only helping solve our garbage crisis; it's also fueled their exponential growth over the last several years. Now with revenues of $20 million a year, they are rapidly creating a new asset class—garbage.

Their business model is one of a kind – Terracycle may be one of the only companies that has negative cost of goods. Companies pay Terracycle to take their garbage away, and then Terracycle upcycles it into cool products. [Click here to see a video of Terracycle’s office (it’s made out of garbage!) http://youtu.be/fk67y3JTfkk]

"Garbage has been a blind spot in our society," says Terracycle's VP of Media Relations Albe Zakes. "It's amazing that, until now, people have not thought of garbage as an asset."

The implications are enormous. Terracycle is rapidly developing a symbiotic relationship with major brands like M&M's, Clif Bar and Oreo. Terracycle hauls away their garbage, and extends their brand equity by making Clif Bar backpacks, Oreo messenger bags and M&M designer gowns out of wrappers.

M&M gown Clif bar gown

How did CEO Tom Szaky realize his passion was turning garbage into gold? He began his career at Princeton, dropped out and became a worm farmer.

Feeding the worms Princeton's leftover cafeteria food, Tom transformed table scraps into worm poop—an excellent fertilizer. Always concerned about reducing his footprint on the planet, Szaky bottled the product in old soda plastic containers.

With his business underway and only $500 in his bank account, an investment firm contacted him with a million dollar investment deal. The only catch – Terracycle would need to stop using used bottles for packaging. Amazingly, Tom turned them down.

This was a pivotal moment in which Terracycle realized its purpose was not to provide great fertilizer; it was to eliminate the concept of waste. The recycled bottles were a critical part of that larger mission, not to be compromised by a million dollar deal.

Understanding its purpose propelled Terracycle to branch out to create all kinds of additional products, all focused on eliminating waste from our garbage stream. Juice containers, snickers wrappers, old cloth – everything became material for something new.

Once they had clarified their purpose, the sky was the limit for this rising star. Everything about the company has turned on its purpose of eliminating waste – its products, its offices, and the company's larger story, which has been picked up by CNN [http://www.youtube.com/user/TerraCycleVideos#p/a/u/0/HFCCqxpzexE], 60 Minutes and the Wall Street Journal among others.

Tom began his career as a worm farmer. Today, by clarifying and manifesting his company's purpose, he has become the CEO of one of the world's most revolutionary companies. Terracycle has taken a stand for the planet, and created a business solution to garbage that may fundamentally transform our society's relationship to waste. 

About Alicia Korten

Award winning author Alicia Korten is CEO of ReNual [www.renual.com], a consulting firm helping companies manifest brand from the inside out. ReNual aligns organizational culture behind clear values, purpose and identity—resulting in extraordinary customer service, high performance teams, innovative products and communications strategies that the media love.

Contact Alicia for a free consultation for your company or organization at (703) 875 – 9139 or Alicia[at]renual.com. Or sign up for her newsletter on organizational culture and values at www.renual.com.

Readers: Can the power of personal convictions outweigh old economy capitalism? Share on Talkback!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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