Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 15
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton

BEST IDEA: “For every tote bag or backpack we make, there is one less tote bag or backpack made of virgin material. We are replacing the need for new plastics.” Albe Zakes, Vice President, Media Relations of TerraCycle, is shown at their Palmer Square store. He holds two items: at left is a bottle of “All Purpose Plant Worm Poop”, the company’s first product, and at right, its most recent one, the Capri Sun backpack. In the background are individual bins for items to be upcycled.

TerraCycle, New Store on Palmer Square Turns Trash Into Eco-Friendly Products

“We want your trash!”

It’s all about eliminating waste, adds Albe Zakes, Vice President, Media Relations at TerraCycle, which opened a store at 63 Palmer Square last September.

TerraCycle, which makes affordable, eco-friendly products from a wide range of non-recyclable waste materials, was founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky, then a Princeton University freshman.

At that time, the focus was on worm castings (aka worm waste), a product used to produce an eco-friendly, organic fertilizer for plants and lawns, which they marketed as “All Purpose Plant Worm Poop”.

With the success of the worm fertilizer, which became available at Home Depot and Wal-Mart, TerraCycle saw opportunities to develop other products. In recent years, the company has grown into a multi-category, environmentally responsible business model. With its innovative uses for waste, it estimates it’s prevented thousands of tons from going to landfills.

Although the county curbside recycling program takes many products, are a great number of items not accepted, however. Plastics numbered 3 through 7 are often unusable, also drink pouches, candy and cookie wrappers, yogurt and butter containers, pens, etc.

Cookies, Candy, Chips

In 2007, TerraCycle launched the Drink Pouch Brigade, with founding partner Honest Tea. The new program was designed to pay schools to collect used drink pouches which TerraCycle would then use to make new products.

In addition, cookie, candy, and chip wrappers could be made into a variety of items, notes Mr. Zakes. “Tom thought that these wrappers could be sewn together to make tote bags. He took the idea to his friend Seth Goldman, the CEO of Honest Tea, and Seth said, ‘It’s a great idea, but who knows how to sew?’ So, Tom bought a sewing machine and taught himself to sew!”

“He ran the program with Honest Tea, and then Capri Sun drink pouches also got involved. Tom approached Target, and they loved the idea.”

The concept expanded into many other areas, including energy bar wrappers, yogurt cups, chip bags, and billboard vinyl, as well as electronic waste — E-Waste.

Then, Mr. Szaky decided to explore partnerships with a variety of companies to the collection program from schools, churches, and non-profit organizations.

“We are partnered with manufacturers, who emphasize social/environmentally positive practices,” points out Mr. Zakes. “We have exclusive partnerships with major Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies, such as Kraft Foods, Frito-Lay, Stonyfield Farm, Mars-Wrigley, Nabisco, Quaker, and many others.”

Huge Quantities

And the schools and non-profits, which collect the pouches, wrappers, etc. are sending huge quantities to the TerraCycle plant in Trenton.

“One million drink pouches come in every week and two million chip bags, and cookie and candy wrappers,” says Mr. Zakes. “In Trenton, we clean the wrappers and bags and turn them into sheets, which are then fused into layers?”

The various “Brigade Programs” — more than 35,000 schools and 60,000 total locations — have expanded nationwide, and there are TerraCycle offices in Canada, Brazil, Great Britain, and Mexico, as well as the U.S.

“The schools get 2 for each item they collect, then UPS comes to get them and deliver them to us. We pay close to $2 million to schools this year,” reports Mr. Zakes.

TerraCycle has partnered with companies, including Yak-Pak and Mitz to manufacture the new “upcycled” products. Items made from the formerly non-recyclable articles include tote bags, backpacks, hand bags, messenger bags (from billboard vinyl), shower curtains, kites, file folders, binders, notebooks, pencil cases, flower pots and planters, pet and cleaning products, and a variety of items from E-waste, such as circuit board clocks, coasters, and picture frames.

“In figuring out what to do with E-Waste — that is old printers, monitors, VCRs, etc. — we were able to use the left-over plastic, and then we thought about using the circuit boards for the clocks, coasters, and picture frames,” explains Mr. Zakes.

Mickey Mouse

TerraCycle’s products are appealing, colorful, and durable, he adds, and people of all ages are want them.

“I especially love seeing the kids’ faces when they see our products. Disney invited us to have a table at a “Green Festival” at Epcot in 2008, and kids actually ran past Mickey Mouse to get to us!”

Involving the youngest consumers in TerraCycle’s Brigades and in environmentally-friendly practices generally is very important to the company,” emphasizes Mr. Zakes. “This gives them an opportunity to engage in the environment. We don’t have to drag kids to be environmentally aware; we’re giving them a push in the right direction.

“A major part of the program is the social benefit of inspiring and empowering the next generation of thinkers. We have factory tours for schools and also virtual tours on our website.”

At the Trenton headquarters, which is also the sales and marketing and design center, scientists and researchers continue to explore the possibilities of what further uses can be made of used materials, he adds.

“We consult with plastic scientists to see how we can eventually turn drink pouches into concrete and chip bags and candy wrappers into various other plastic products. We also expect to have picnic coolers available at Target and trash cans at Wal-Mart, and we plan to make mops, brooms, concrete picnic tables, benches, and pavers. These items will be made from our products, which we collect when people are ready to discard them. They can be turned into utilitarian products. So, again, the idea is that nothing is wasted.”

Mosaic of Color

The products at the Palmer Square store are intriguing and offer a mosaic of color, design, and texture. The high quality handbags and a variety of smaller purses are made by women in Mexico, for the Mitz Company, and Zak-Pak makes assorted backpacks, tote and messenger bags, and cell phone holders.

In many cases, the brand names, such as M&M’s, Capri Sun, Quaker, etc., all in bright colors and patterns, are visible on the item.

Prices range from $1 for a folder to $65 for a handbag, and every price in between, with many at $2, $3, $5, and $15.

The store also has a series of bins to collect used wrappers, yogurt cups, butter containers, pens, etc. As their research continues, TerraCycle hopes to be able to accept more and more previously unrecyclable items.

Positive Signs

Mr. Zakes sees many positive signs about their programs. “It’s encouraging that there is excitement about eco-friendly products, and it is branching out. On Earth Day, every Wal-Mart store in the country started selling 60 of our products, and will continue to do so for four weeks.

“We also have a pop-up store in the Port Authority in New York at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 41st Street, and we have one hundred different products there as well as weekly special events.

“I look forward to our Princeton store turning into a sustainable model. If it works in Princeton, it can work in Boulder, Col., and if works there, it can work in Portland, Ore., and if it works in Portland, it can work in San Francisco.

You know,” he adds, “being ‘green’ is always seen as costing more money or taking more time, and people don’t always respond. We want them to know it can be easy and even fun. What can one person do? We’ll make it easy — drop-offs in front of Macy’s and at AMC movie theaters, and at our store here.

“Other companies are doing some of what we do, but they are much smaller. No one is doing this on as massive a scale as we are. Globally, there are 23 trillion tons of waste annually. Much of it is incinerated, which affects the climate. You can’t put a dent in consumption and waste with small efforts.”

TerraCycle’s store hours are Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 10 to 8:30, Sunday 12 to 5, with expanded summer hours. (609) 921-1114. Website:

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