The designers at TerraCycle refer to themselves as "junkies." The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may not recognize job addiction, but after speaking with the company's resident design junkies, it is not hard to imagine withdrawal symptoms on days off. Not simply because the Trenton, New Jersey-based recycling and upcycling firm does eco-friendly work, but because so much of what they do, or fail to do, is an exercise in recombinant aesthetics.
It was hard not to picture a modern art piece dangling in the Guggenheim when Brad Sherman, one of TerraCycle's design junkies, told me about a chandelier he made of used eyeglasses. Although this project, and his bamboo-like picture frames made of cigarette butts, never made it to market, it says something about a company when even its failures can be mistaken for art.
Although TerraCycle now operates internationally, converting millions of tons of waste into new products or materials, its humble beginnings can be traced back to worm poop.
According to Dr. Bill Gillum, TerraCycle's Chief Scientific Officer, the company began by selling "an all-purpose, ready-to-use fertilizer ... compost-made from the byproduct of red worms with favorable bacteria" for plants, cultivated in horse troughs. The fertilizer was packaged in mis-struck and used plastic bottles, cleaned and labeled for reuse. Since it began receiving corporate sponsorship for upcycling and recycling projects, Dr. Gillum states that there has been a "big change in the company's direction. We're doing plastics recycling, bringing in all this post-consumer packaging waste, and re-pelletizing the difficult-to-recycle material."
TerraCycle's main focus is now on upcycling. While roughly 85 percent of their materials are recycled, the bulk of their profit margin comes from upgraded trash.
According to Sherman, corporations often approach TerraCycle with consumer products or packaging, and ask to see what the design junkies can do with them. For instance, a company like L'Oreal may want to see what they can do with cosmetics packaging. If the company approves the prototype and sponsors a product, Sherman states that they "would set-up what's called a Brigade ... with collection centers all across the United States" where consumers could deposit the post-consumer waste. The amount of money a company pays determines the number of collection centers used, and the waste is then shipped to TerraCycle. If a brand logo is visible on the upcycled product, Sherman states that the company receives "a variable percentage royalty, which is definitely an incentive ... our first goal, is to make brands happy."
How these design junkies turn Capri Sun pouches and pull tabs into purses, or M&M bags into writing journals and kites, has as much to do with initiative as imagination.
TerraCycle's current design team, headed by Tiffany Threadgould, consists of only three "junkies" and a handful of interns. Yet, according to Sherman, it is not unusual "for our turnaround time to be a week from when we get the material to when we get the prototype out." This kind of productivity can be attributed to how the team works both individually and in tandem to develop products. Threadgould notes that they "often get together to brainstorm," but develop prototypes on their own.
In addition, the team efficiently utilizes different skillsets. For instance, Threadgould has design experience that allows her to work with shrink-wrapped plastics, heat pressed into stitchable fabric for jackets, purses, and pencil cases. Sherman utilizes his architectural background for 3D modeling and prototyping, an education that also assisted his one-man crusade to revamp the corporate headquarters.
"They needed architectural experience," Sherman explains, "to redesign 10,000 square feet of office space with a $10,000 budget: all using just waste." Sherman used "old doors for tabletops, old palettes for legs, soda bottles and records for room dividers, carpet remnants for the floor, and for ground cover we used old turf from a soccer field."
A typical day for a design junkie at TerraCycle might consist of pulping cigarette butts in a blender, firing up a heat press to fuse M&M wrappers at 250 degrees, or figuring out what to make of a pile of rice husks and coconut fibers, as with their biodegradable fiber pots. "The majority of what we do," Sherman explains, "has to do with wrappers and films."
For example, as Valentine's Day comes to an end, a company may have 20 percent of their product remaining, which would normally end up in a landfill. TerraCycle gives the waste a new lease on life and will make a "fabric" out of it. This heat-pressed fabric is "made into 2-, 3-, or up to 6-ply [material], and run through a sewing machine to see if it can hold a stitch."
From this polymer fabric, Threadgould has made everything from Capri Sun purses to a jacket for Stephen Colbert, made of Doritos wrappers, which he sported on his eponymous news show The Colbert Report. Most TerraCycle products are available at Dwell Smart (www.terracycleshop.com), an online sustainable retailer, or even at commercial outlets, such as Target or Walmart.
Upcycling may be what TerraCycle is most known for, but as Ernie Simpson, Senior Director of Research & Development, may attest, it is only part of the story. TerraCycle also specializes in recycling what Simpson terms, "material that was once considered unrecyclable, such as flexible packaging with multilayer polymer composites."
In other words, they pay Ernie for every impossibility he makes possible. If this seems like an overstatement, consider his most recent project to recycle dirty diapers, which Simpson states, "make up six percent of all garbage" in landfills. His current plan is to treat the diapers with biocide and "separate the super-absorber from the outside structure," which is a plastic he can shred and pelletize to make plastic lumber. Simpson has also pelletized used chewing gum, which he explains "is actually a polymer, once you remove the sugars ... you can blend it with other materials" to make items like plastic fence posts and industrial lumber. TerraCycle plans to expand its recycling efforts, and the new eco-vogue will likely provide no shortage of corporate sponsors for future upcycling projects.
Matthew Morris-Cook is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.