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Turning Trash into Treasure

March 1, 2010


If there is one thing that humankind has mastered, it’s the seemingly unlimited ability to create waste. Even in places that would seem remote from human touch, you can find mankind’s rubbish — like the middle of the ocean [“Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash,” by Lindsey Hoshaw, New York Times, 9 November 2009]. Just how much rubbish has accumulated might surprise you. Hoshaw reports:

“In this remote patch of the Pacific Ocean [1,000 miles northeast of Hawaii], hundreds of miles from any national boundary, the detritus of human life is collecting in a swirling current so large that it defies precise measurement. Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas. But one research organization estimates that the garbage now actually pervades the Pacific, though most of it is caught in what oceanographers call a gyre like this one — an area of heavy currents and slack winds that keep the trash swirling in a giant whirlpool. Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans. Abandoned fishing gear like buoys, fishing line and nets account for some of the waste, but other items come from land after washing into storm drains and out to sea.”

If predictions are correct, by 2020 the trash caught in the Pacific gyre will be approaching the size of Texas, Alaska, and Nebraska combined — and that’s just one of the five gyres trapping trash around the world. If you could find someone willing to pay you to clean up all that trash, you’d have guaranteed lifetime employment. The ocean is a big place so you might wonder why islands of trash floating in the middle of nowhere are such a big deal. Hoshaw explains:

“Plastic is the most common refuse in the patch because it is lightweight, durable and an omnipresent, disposable product in both advanced and developing societies. It can float along for hundreds of miles before being caught in a gyre and then, over time, breaking down. But once it does split into pieces, the fragments look like confetti in the water. Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres. PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat. The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.”

Even though these gyre-filled islands of trash present a potential health hazard, I doubt much will be done about them in the decades ahead because they are likely to remain out sight, out of mind, and out of anyone’s national jurisdiction. Even the technology needed to clean up the gyres may not yet exist according to Nina Shen Rastogi [“The Pacific Ocean’s Garbage Patch needs more study,” Washington Post, 10 February 2010]. She writes:

“In reality, it’s not so much an island of trash as a thin, soupy area of litter, mostly in the form of tiny flecks of plastic, studded here and there with old fishing gear and children’s toys. Even if you were to sail right through the Patch, the water probably wouldn’t look too remarkable, unless you scooped some up and looked at it closely. So cleaning this part of the ocean isn’t as simple as you might imagine. Because the trash is so dispersed, it’s not like we can just steer a big ship out to sea and pick up the Garbage Patch. Collecting all those small fragments of plastic would be extremely expensive. Plus, thanks to a variety of factors — from winter storms to El Niño — the Garbage Patch moves, making it hard to target effectively. Finally, in gathering up those little scraps, you also run the risk of catching — and killing — any marine animals living amid the debris, many of which are the same size as the plastic bits. For all these reasons, most organizations stress that the best way to keep oceans clean is to prevent garbage from getting there in the first place.”

In other words, people are going to have to continue looking under the, sea rather than on it, for treasure. On land, however, there are people who are finding ways to turn trash into treasure. One such individual is Tom Szaky, president of company called TerraCycle [“The alchemist of all garbage,” by Jonathan Birchall, Financial Times, 13 January 2010]. Birchall reports:

“Tom Szaky has very ambitious goals for TerraCycle, the recycling company he founded just over five years ago. ‘I want TerraCycle to become a verb, like Google,’ he says of the small company, based in an old factory building in the post-industrial wasteland of Trenton, New Jersey. ‘We hope to wake up one day and become the new version of recycling, where every waste stream has a solution within the TerraCycle system.’ The 27-year-old Mr Szaky founded his company with just one waste stream – left-over food from the cafeteria at nearby Princeton University, where he was a student, which was fed to worms and turned into fertiliser and sold in discarded soda bottles. But after a rapid journey that few start-ups can claim to emulate, he is dealing with the waste flow of some of the US’s biggest consumer companies, including Kraft, Mars, PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark and General Mills, although TerraCycle’s turnover was just $12.5m (€8.7m, £7.8m) last year. The recycling logo that Mr Szaky says he designed during an uninspiring lecture at Princeton now appears on an estimated 1.5bn familiar consumer packages in stores across the US, ranging from Capri-Sun juice drinks to M&M sweets. ‘It will be on 20bn to 30bn packages by the end of 2010, on a global basis,’ he says. TerraCycle’s five warehouses across the US receive millions of items of wrapping and packaging, collected by more than 8m people, including schools and charities, who may get 2 or 3 cents per wrapper. Together with other items, such as flawed rolls of packaging material, the waste is ultimately recycled into products such as bins, backpacks and pencil cases.”

All that sounds profitable, but the recycling business in general hasn’t been as profitable as one might think. Had it been, environmentalists wouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to get people to recycle. According to Birchall, TerraCycle lost $4.5 million in 2008, but is now operating in the black. In fact, the business is expanding and the company has opened “offices and recycling warehouses in Canada, Brazil, the UK, France and Germany.” Perhaps the most surprising thing about the company is that “has just 55 employees.” Although I believe that most start-ups should follow traditional business plans, Szaky apparently went a different way. Birchall continues:

“‘Everything we do, you are not supposed to do,’ says Mr Szaky. That included signing some early, almost overwhelming, contracts to sell its worm-waste product to Home Depot and Walmart Canada, as well as developing a big range of products, and expanding overseas. Mr Szaky’s original idea for the worm business grew out of a start-up business plan he entered for a competition at Princeton. But serendipity rather than MBA science seems to have shaped TerraCycle’s business, mixed with on-the-hoof inventiveness, occasional luck and plenty of ambition. ‘It’s how I like to do business. I am willing to take some risk, to put some capital down and test an idea,’ says Mr Szaky. ‘I don’t want to sit and debate with anyone whether it’s a good or bad idea.’ The business has undergone two big shifts. The worm-waste operation was bubbling along in 2007, and TerraCycle had begun paying ‘collection brigades’ to send in used soda bottles for the packaging. That led to a deal with Danone’s Stonyfield Yoghurt to collect and reuse yoghurt pots. Then Mr Szaky was approached by Honest Tea, a small ethically focused start-up, which wanted a way to process foil and plastic children’s juice pouches, whose composite nature made them unsuited to regular recycling. Under the deal, Honest Tea’s packages were made into branded backpacks – and into a dress worn by Soyeon Lee, Mr Szaky’s Korean pianist wife, at her Carnegie Hall debut in New York in 2008. … But the far bigger transformation came later that year, after TerraCycle came into possession of piles of recycled juice pouches from Kraft’s Capri-Sun brand that had been collected in a state-run project in British Columbia. Mr Szaky proposed that Capri-Sun join the Honest Tea programme. … ‘Capri-Sun signed a million-dollar contract right off the bat, and they basically exploded the programme,’ says Mr Szaky. Other Kraft brands followed, as did more consumer companies.”

With this rapid expansion, Szaky was faced by challenges all start-ups dream of facing — challenges associated with growth. Birchall explains that TerraCycle was struggling “both to continue product development and oversee the manufacturing.”

“‘Kraft wanted more kids’ products, Aveeno [owned by Johnson & Johnson] wanted its brand around more cosmetic products,’ [Szaky] says. But the costs of developing products and handling the manufacture and merchandising to retailers was too much. ‘We could either completely scale back, and focus on a handful of products, which I really didn’t want to do. Or we come up with another solution,’ says Mr Szaky. The solution, launched last year, was licensing, an idea Mr Szaky says occurred to him when he was in California discussing waste recycling with Hollywood studios, in what he calls ‘a totally random connection’. TerraCycle tested one licensed product, a billboard bag for Yak Pak, a small New York-based bag company. ‘It was just throwing an idea against a wall to see if it worked, and the moment it worked, we aggressively said: “We’re not making products any more, we’re licensing everything.” The effect was phenomenal. We are now profitable, next year we will be highly profitable. The number of products we make exploded … and the sales of our products tripled overnight. And the risk disappeared.'”

Szaky’s experience underscores the importance of things I’ve continually stressed in discussions about entrepreneurism: connections, seeing opportunities, and being flexible enough to take advantage of those opportunities. Had Szaky not been pounding the pavement in Hollywood, his “totally random connection” would never have been made. At the same time, Szaky was smart enough to recognize an opportunity in a completely different business model than the one he began with. The ability to see opportunities and adapt to them is a talent that most successful entrepreneurs share. Szaky took a risk by going in a new direction (and lost a lot of money before becoming profitable again).

“TerraCycle now has a head of licensing, who was formerly at Disney, to supervise a unique product licensing programme in which the licensor also supplies some raw material. Mr Szaky believes he has achieved through trial and error the model that will enable the company to become the ‘Google of recycling’, establishing itself as the global standard setter.”

Szaky’s dream of developing a company in which every waste stream has a solution is certainly ambitious; but as a broader goal for society, the dream is probably achievable. I’ve written several posts about the importance of finding solutions for waste streams (see, for example, Pollution in Asia, Of Diamonds and Dumps, and The Trouble with Trash). As I concluded in the latter post, “There is no doubt that the effort required to recycle waste material can be tedious and onerous. There is also no doubt that landfills are filling and waste streams will continue to grow as millions of more consumers are brought into the middle class as globalization helps lift them out of poverty. When recycling becomes a way of life and clean technologies help clear the skies, people will forget the burdens and appreciate the benefits.” Some companies are already dealing with specific waste streams, like those associated with the automobile industry.


Following last year’s “cash for clunkers” program in the U.S., CNN broadcast a report on what happened to all those clunkers [“Windshields to wine glasses: What happens to Clunkers,” by Aaron Smith, 27 August 2009]. Smith reported:

“Next time you’re sipping your favorite wine, examine the glass closely: If it’s thick and greenish, it might have been the windshield of an old, junked car. UncommonGoods, an online retailer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., peddles wine glasses, beer glasses and punch bowls that are manufactured in Colombia from recycled windshield glass. … Joanna Penn, a media relations coordinator for UncommonGoods, … said her company also started selling purses, wallets, briefcases and belts made from recycled tires by a Boulder, Colo.-based artist named Heather English. All the products are black, though they’re missing the tell-tale treads. … These products are the end result of the $22 billion recycling industry for scrapped cars, which is now in the spotlight thanks to the federal Cash for Clunkers program. … But most of a scrapped car’s parts are recycled, including the metal, glass, plastic, tires and even fluids like used motor oil, according to Earth911, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based environmental services company that focuses on recycling and the proper disposal of trash. Generally, car parts that still function, such as engines, radiators, wheels and panels are first stripped from the vehicles for reuse in other cars. Then defunct parts are reincarnated as something else. ‘Recycling a car completes that product’s lifecycle but by turning it into something completely different,’ said Jennifer Berry, public and strategic relations manager for Earth911.”

Completely reusing a product’s parts for something else is the holy grail of recycling. There’s a company in Japan that turns waste paper into toilet paper [“Turn waste office paper into toilet paper,” by Rick Martin, Gizmag, 2 February 2010]. Martin explains how this is done:

“While many environmentalists hope that we can eventually have a paperless office, one company in Japan has developed a machine that shreds paper and then converts the waste into readily usable toilet paper. The process requires you to add water, and it requires about 30 minutes to thin out the paper and generate one roll of toilet paper. This ‘TP’ looks far from snuggly soft, but it’s undeniably a significant step towards a greener office space. The entire process is automated, so it’s definitely a big convenience. The ‘White Goat’ as it’s called is not a contraption that you’re likely to squeeze under your desk however. Its mammoth size (1.8m tall and 600kg) would definitely be a better fit in your server room if you have one. It’s set to go on sale this summer in Japan for a price of about US$100,000.”

You can buy an awfully lot of toilet paper for a hundred grand and Martin wonders if the power required to transform paper waste into toilet paper offsets any “green” benefits it may produce. Since the machine is not yet on sale, we’ll just have to wait and see. If you can’t transform waste into something else, it is often burned. Ideally, when trash is burned, it is consumed for fuel. That is what one company in the Washington, DC, area is doing [“Turning Trash Into Fuel,” by Mike Musgrove, Washington Post, 16 September 2009]. Musgrove reports:

“Plastic soda bottles, Big Gulp cups and empty sour cream containers get fed into the top of the three-story machine. About 10 minutes later, out the other side comes a light-brown synthetic oil that can be converted into fuel for a truck or a jet airplane. The Envion Oil Generator … represents a local company’s decade-long effort to fight rising fuel costs and help protect the environment. … ‘We’re creating immediate answers to today’s environmental concerns,’ said Michael Han, the firm’s chairman and chief executive, as he showed off the generator on Tuesday. ‘This is an answer to environmentalists who don’t want a landfill in their back yard.’ The District company’s technology works by melting plastic in an oxygen-free environment to separate the hydrocarbons destined for the oil barrel from the additives used to make that Big Gulp cup. The additives are rendered into a nonhazardous ash byproduct, the company says. While other firms have developed ways to convert waste plastic into oil, Han said, Envion uses a ‘far-infrared ray’ technology that yields more fuel than competitors’ processes.”

Even among environmentalists, schemes to turn trash into oil are met with skepticism.

“‘There are so many schemes like this,’ said Kert Davies, [a research director with the environmental organization Greenpeace], citing plans he’s heard that would make sustainable fuel out of everything ranging from turkey carcasses to carbon dioxide. ‘I get calls every other day from someone who has some invention that magically makes the world whole.'”

Envion, of course, is claiming that it process will “make the world whole”; but it is proposing a solution to the plastics problem which is one of the developing world’s most pressing challenges. Remember that it is tiny plastic particles that makes up most of the island of trash discussed at the beginning of this post. Davies, notes however, that to be sustainable, Envion generators must have a steady source of plastic material, and he would rather see consumers wean themselves from plastic rather than continue to generate a plastic waste stream. Since that is not likely to happen in the near term, however, Envion’s generator has its place. Musgrove continues:

“Envion said its new generator can consume any type of plastic and convert it into synthetic oil; depending on the type of plastic, one ton can be converted into three to six barrels of fuel. Envion said it costs about $10 to convert the plastic waste into a barrel’s worth of synthetic oil; currently, crude oil sells for close to $70 a barrel. The generator, with a capacity for handling more than 6,000 tons of plastic per year, is a slightly smaller version of what Envion will soon be pitching as its flagship product. The 10,000-ton version, which could produce up to 60,000 barrels, costs $6 million to $7 million to build. … Envion hopes to license the technology to municipalities across the country and eventually take it global.”

The goal of recycling, of course, is to move steadily from lots of waste to little waste to no waste. A few years ago, a designer in Nike’s basketball shoe division was appalled when he visited company plants in Thailand and saw the mountains of waste sitting outside. Rather than shrug his shoulders, he decided to do something about it. He designed a shoe called Trash Talk [“BYU grad turns Nike scraps into NBA-quality sneakers,” by Sara Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News, 28 February 2010]. Israelsen-Hartley reports:

“The project began several years ago when Jarvis got a glimpse of the giant piles of scraps outside one of Nike’s manufacturing plants in Vietnam. ‘It was pretty overpowering, shocking to see how much waste there is,’ he said. ‘;When you outsource your manufacturing, you’re outsourcing your pollution. You usually think about one but don’t think too much about the other.’ After that trip, he began to brainstorm a way to make shoes from the scraps. Using food metaphors, his team first tried the meatloaf approach — grind up all the leftovers and create a shoe from the composite. A good idea, but difficult to do because the coatings on individual components prevented them from meshing well. So, they tried the casserole approach, with individual scraps machine-stitched together to make a new shoe. ‘Once we were pursuing this path, making shoes from garbage, essentially garbage, it really threw people for a loop inside Nike,’ Jarvis said. Some thought the recycled shoes could only be sold in discount stores while others envisioned instant appeal in the high-end sneaker boutiques. And the shoe is a popular seller now, especially since supporter Steve Nash wore his own pair of Trash Talks in the 2008 All-Star Game, Jarvis said. … It takes eight regular pairs of shoes to have enough scraps to make one pair of Trash Talks, Jarvis said, although both regular and recycled share a similar profit margin, due to the intense labor required.”

Although reducing waste in the manufacturing process is important, the reduction of downstream waste is also critical. Last October, Leslie Kaufman wrote about the movement towards zero waste [“Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None,” New York Times, 19 October 2009]. Kaufman begins her report by highlighting some innovative ways that people are dealing with trash:

“At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes. At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back. And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether. Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as ‘zero waste’ is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations. The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can. Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.”

Not only do Americans produce more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than anyone else, according to Kaufman, “Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per person per day.” She continues:

“More than half of that ends up in landfills or is incinerated. But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island. The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates the recycling not only of commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also of tires, batteries and household appliances. Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of course for most residents. The complex also has a garagelike structure where residents can drop off books and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.”

I like the idea of making a recycling location a social site as well. Kaufman reports that the parking lot at the complex “is a lively meeting place for locals.” In the post, about pollution in Asia, I noted that in Japan, where large incinerators are being used to dispose of trash, neighbors of those plants “swim and exercise in the plant’s handsome and affordable fitness center.” In Nantucket, a remarkable 92 percent of the trash produced there is recycled, with only 8 percent ending up in the landfill. “By contrast,” Kaufman reports, “Massachusetts residents as a whole send an average of 66 percent of their trash to a landfill or incinerator.” She continues:

“Aside from the difficulty of persuading residents and businesses to divide their trash, many towns and municipalities have been unwilling to make the significant capital investments in machines like composters that can process food and yard waste. Yet attitudes are shifting, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are at the forefront of the changeover. Both of those cities have adopted plans for a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in residential areas for composting. Food waste, which the E.P.A. says accounts for about 13 percent of total trash nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total — is viewed as the next big frontier. When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more, when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no methane by-product.”

Like most people, you have probably bought a product that has come in a big box that contains mostly air. You’ve probably even said to yourself, “What a waste.” Packaging, of course, often serves as a marketing tool as well as having a practical purpose. As consumers become more environmentally concerned, packaging will continue to come under greater scrutiny. Kaufman continues:

“Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement. Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone, made from plant materials like cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items that are compostable. Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, a nonprofit organization that certifies such products, said that the number of companies making compostable products for food service providers had doubled since 2006 and that many had moved on to items like shopping bags and food packaging.”

In spite of the progress that has been made, Kaufman reports that challenges remain.

“The transition to zero waste, however, has its pitfalls. Josephine Miller, an environmental official for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., which bans the use of polystyrene foam containers, said that some citizens had unwittingly put the plant-based alternatives into cans for recycling, where they had melted and had gummed up the works. Yellowstone and some institutions have asked manufacturers to mark some biodegradable items with a brown or green stripe. Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say. ‘Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,’ said [Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief with] the E.P.A. He expects private companies and businesses to move faster than private citizens because momentum can be driven by one person at the top. ‘It will take a lot longer to get average Americans to compost,’ Mr. Johnston said. ‘Reaching down to my household and yours is the greatest challenge.'”

In the end, there is no pain-free way for consumers to recycle. Sorting trash will likely become a routine for most households in the future, but learning that routine will probably cause a few headaches and complaints. In the end, however, the efforts will payoff for both individuals and society.

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