Splendor in the Grass

At his computer, Tom Szaky is Googling words like peat and fertilizer. Jon Beyer, his business partner, is taking lunch orders. After all, you’ve got to eat before you get your hands dirty in business—particularly this business.

At his computer, Tom Szaky is Googling words like peat and fertilizer. Jon Beyer, his business partner, is taking lunch orders. After all, you’ve got to eat before you get your hands dirty in business—particularly this business.

In 2003, in Trenton, Szaky and Beyer started TerraCycle, which, among its twelve product offerings, makes all-natural, nontoxic plant food and potting soil as well as liquid fertilizers and deer repellent. Szaky, 25, and Beyer, 23, spend part of their day sifting through mounds of refuse, recovering old soda bottles and picking through the rest, to create clean piles of dirt that they augment with a secret ingredient that they’re both very proud to mention out loud: worm poop.

“We’re making a product completely out of garbage,” says Szaky, a Princeton University class of 2005 dropout who looks more like a hard-partying cast member of Saturday Night Live than the CEO he is.

Szaky says that the dirt works better than anything else on the market. He stumbled upon the business idea after a trip to Montreal, where he saw firsthand how well his friends could grow plants—marijuana plants—by using castings, or worm poop, which were simple to harvest in dark basements. The castings, says Szaky, smell like “a wet forest.” Just supply soil and garbage—any organic material, such as wood, vegetables, or coffee grounds—within a controlled environment, and the worms do all the work. TerraCycle uses commonly available red worms, and Szaky estimates that at any given time the company is employing billions of them.

The worms work their way through the garbage, after which they and the garbage go through a tunnel sifter, which separates the worms and larger particles from the nutrient-rich material (castings and smaller bits of garbage). This material is then steeped in warm vats of water, to make a kind of tea. Then the water is drained off and the castings are separated out and dried. The castings and garbage create potting soil and seed starter (the seed starter is 100 percent worm poop), and the leftover liquid gets bottled as what Szaky calls the “ultimate, all-natural plant food,” since it’s safe for children and animals if it’s touched or even accidentally ingested. 

At Szaky and Beyer’s research greenhouse in Bordentown, the partners figured out how to harvest the best worm poop available. Then Szaky got the idea of also reusing old soda bottles as packaging for their potting soil and plant foods. It takes 1,000 worms a day to produce one 16-ounce soda bottle full of castings. TerraCycle then formed a bottle brigade, in which to date more than 2,000 schools, churches, and nonprofits around the country have participated. For every bottle collected, the company donates five cents to the collector and pays for shipping. In the end, the entire process—from the product to its packaging—is almost completely sustainable: nearly everything that the company harvests, grows, reuses, and sells creates minimal garbage. Since recycling bottles uses energy to melt glass and reusing them entails only washing and shipping them, Szaky says, “By reusing the bottles, we’re actually doing something better than recycling. It’s more environmentally friendly.”

TerraCycle’s headquarters are located on Trenton’s industrial New York Avenue, at a formerly neglected site chosen because setting up shop there would both give something back to the community and provide tax incentives to Szaky and Beyer. “We have about 60 employees,” says Albert Zakes, TerraCycle’s senior publicist, and many of them walk or ride their bikes to work. Outside, rogue soda bottles litter a portion of the yard. But it’s the graffiti that set TerraCycle’s plant apart from the repo lot across the street and the dingy garages nearby. A local graffiti artist, known nationally as Leon Rainbow, and his posse, Vicious Styles Crew, have been given full reign over the walls inside and outside the plant.

 “I met Tom at a party in Princeton,” says Rainbow, who helped organize Terra-Cycle’s first graffiti and music jam last year—a punk band played, and 120 artists from Newark, Camden, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C., freely created art at the Trenton property—and is already planning one for this summer. Szaky immediately saw a connection between the group’s street art and his company’s vision. “The art that we do is recycled,” says Rainbow. “It’s like taking something that’s not being used and using it.”

TerraCycle products have won more than 30 awards, including the New Jersey Technology Council’s New Business of the Year award for 2006; the ZeroFootprint Foundation says that TerraCycle’s products are the world’s first consumer products to have virtually no impact on the environment. TerraCycle’s offerings, including its potting mix and spray fertilizer, are now available in the United States and Canada at Target, Home Depot, and Whole Foods, which stocks the products in every one of its mid-Atlantic stores, according to Sarah Kenney, the chain’s director of marketing for the region. And at Wal-Mart alone, Szaky says, TerraCycle sells 40 percent of its products.

Szaky and Beyer’s trashonomics business model translates into savings for consumers. At $4.98, TerraCycle’s seed starter kit is cheaper than most other such kits on the market, because its key component—garbage—is free, and its cost is essentially just for labor.

Szaky says that he plans to turn TerraCycle into a $6 million company, launch 20 products—including a drain cleaner, a de-icer, a bird feeder, and graffiti pots, made of crushed cars and covered with graffiti—and become the Procter & Gamble of eco-friendly fertilizer.

In the meantime, when things get really busy, it’s not uncommon to see Szaky knee-deep in worm poop on a Saturday afternoon, shoveling garbage and worm poop into a wheelbarrow. And everyone who works at the plant—even its founders—eventually ends up on the bottle line, sorting plastic, printing out labels, or brewing worm tea.

Worm tea? “Worm tea is the new Earl Grey,” quips Zakes, who says that after working with the company for a few months, he finally dared to take a sip of the stuff, to drive home the point that worm poop is about as natural as it gets. What does it taste like? Says Zakes, “It tastes like dirt.”

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