“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

We are all familiar with the staples of the recycling industry: plastic, paper, metals, and glass. Virtually everything you find on store shelves uses these materials in some form, and yet many of them are unrecyclable either because of their design or because the combination of materials used in their manufacturing makes them difficult to break down. But one company is steadily proving that it’s possible to recycle virtually everything we discard on a daily basis.

From Fertilizer to Drink Pouches

TerraCycle’s roots stem from one of the most underrated organisms on the planet, worms. Back in 2001, Tom Szaky was introduced to the concept of vermicomposting by a couple of friends who kept worms in their kitchen in order to turn their food scraps into fertilizer for their plants. The idea intrigued Tom so much that he started his own vermicomposting operation at Princeton University, creating TerraCycle in the process. When he wasn’t in class, he was shoveling cafeteria scraps into a compost bin full of millions of red worms. He eventually attracted the attention of investors, allowing Tom to expand his operation beyond the university and open his first office in Princeton, NJ. By 2003, Tom had made the decision to quit school in order to devote himself entirely to TerraCycle and his personal quest of finding new and unique ways to recycle waste.

In the years since its founding, TerraCycle has enjoyed continuous growth by focusing on sustainable products sourced from recycled materials, a strategy epitomized by its first commercial line of Plant Food made from the same vermicomposting process used at Princeton.

For the first few years, each container of fertilizer was bottled using reclaimed soda bottles in order to keep costs low, as well as the added benefit of reducing plastic waste. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo granted licenses to TerraCycle allowing them to use their distinctive bottles in their packaging, significantly boosting their ability to grow and expand their line of fertilizers. Aiding in this endeavor was the first ever “Bottle Brigade”, a program developed by TerraCycle that allowed local schools and organizations to collect used bottles for the company in exchange for the proceeds. By 2006, both Home Depot and Wal-Mart were carrying TerraCycle products, elevating the company’s visibility and demonstrating that there was a large and viable market out there for upcycled products.

In 2007, TerraCycle took its original Bottle Brigade idea and adapted it to other post-consumer waste products, creating an entirely new recycling category they call “sponsored waste.” The company started partnering with large brand names such as Honest Tea and Kraft Foods to develop unique waste stream solutions for each of their most popular products. The first sponsored waste program was centered on upcycling drink pouches, primarily Capri Sun, into a wide range of products such as backpacks and pencil pouches. Since this was the largest upcycling program ever attempted, no one knew what to expect in terms of demand or sales. But by the end of the year the program was deemed successful enough to launch two other Brigades in partnership with Stonyfield Farm and Clif Bar to upcycle yogurt cups and energy bar wrappers.

These partnerships laid the groundwork necessary for even more ambitious recycling programs, targeting some of the most unlikely items for recycling.

Recycling the Unrecyclable

One of TerraCycle’s biggest targets is cigarette butts. Those little stubs of plastic and tobacco are the most frequently littered item in the world, and they aren’t simply an eyesore for city sidewalks. The filters used in cigarettes contain cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that doesn’t biodegrade and persists for years, contaminating waterways and poisoning wildlife that mistake the filters for food.

In an effort to curb cigarette littering, TerraCycle launched the first ever recycling program for cigarettes in 2012. TerraCycle partnered with the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company to provide waste collection boxes to homes, businesses, and other institutions that could use them to collect their cigarette butts. Santa Fe Natural donates $1.00 to the Keep America Beautiful Cigarette Litter Prevention Program for every pound of cigarette waste collected, while TerraCycle recycles the plastic in the filters and composts the remaining tobacco.

The program achieved initial success in Canada, with similar Brigade programs rolling out in the US and Spain soon after. Brigade participants represent a wide swathe of homes, businesses, and institutions. Even large government offices such as Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District have gotten onboard with the cigarette waste brigade. Millions of cigarette butts have been collected since the start of the program, diverting an appreciable amount of cigarettes from both the landfill and the environment.

Alongside its Brigade programs, TerraCycle operates a tiered recycling waste stream through its Zero Waste Boxes initiative. Similar to its individual Brigade programs, which focus on a particular product, these boxes allow customers to recycle a variety of items at once. The system operates in three tiers that vary in cost based on how much sorting the customer wishes to do themselves.

The least expensive tier provides separate boxes for specific categories of waste, ranging from action figures to used chewing gum. The next tier up offers recycling boxes for each room of the house or business. For instance, one box can be placed in a bathroom for collecting tissue boxes, paper towels, and other toiletries. Since disposable items found in individual rooms are likely to be made of the same materials, keeping sorting costs relatively low compared to non-separated materials. The last tier of course allows customers to throw everything into a single box with no separation. This option offers the most convenience, but comes at a higher cost to cover the additional expense of sorting all the materials.

Eliminating the Idea of Waste

TerraCycle has enjoyed continuous growth over the past 14 years thanks to its relentless commitment to the idea of eliminating waste. Their success has proven that operating a business on the principles of sustainability is entirely feasible, even profitable. And that anything can be recycled with the right plan and the right partners. Their business model will hopefully prompt other manufacturers to consider their responsibility for the waste their products create, helping to close the loop on a number of waste streams that might seem immutable today, but can be easily changed with the right initiative.