The amazing thing about eco-capitalism is that you can create business
models where everyone truly wins: the environment, the consumer, the big business, the retailer and your business. In other words, all stakeholders (even the environment) can benefit. What's amazing about this kind of solution is that it creates the opposite of a death spiral -- a growth spiral. That is exactly what happened when we launched what we call "sponsored waste."
Let's take one step back. What is waste? The idea doesn't exist in the
natural world -- in other words it is completely man made. It is a
commodity that has negative value, a commodity that most people are willing to pay to get rid of. Or in other words a commodity that people are willing to pay you to take.
Even with a modestly advanced recycling system, most of what is produced in America is not recyclable. Examples range from yogurt containers, to drink pouches to energy bar wrappers to plastic bags, etc. This list is monstrous in size and scope. Within these waste streams, there are a subset that I would call "branded waste" -- that is, waste that has the manufacturers' logo all over it. Let's revisit the examples again with
brands involved: Stonyfield yogurt containers, Honest Tea and Capri Sun
drink pouches, Clif Bar energy bar wrappers, Target plastic bags.
None of these streams of sponsored waste is recyclable today, which means the only option is throwing them into a landfill. The numbers are staggering: more than 10 billion yogurt cups, more than 5 billion drink pouches, more than 20 billion energy bar wrappers, and well more than 100 billion plastic bags. And hese numbers are for the U.S. only!
What is the solution? In my view it is to upcycle the waste into new
products. The key difference in upcycling vs. recycling is to use the
benefits of the existing waste stream as much as possible. Take a used
Stonyfield Yogurt cup, for example. There is some positive value in the
polymer that the cups are made from if we decide to melt them down.
However, to get to that plastic you'd have to destroy the shape, which
would be an expense. In other words the shape has negative value and is
waste. But why not use the shape as positive value? Our challenge was to
figure out what other containers use that shape. The solution we found: nursery planting pots?
The beautiful part is that not only is a waste stream turned into a new
product, but that new product helps eliminate some of the more than 300 million pounds of nursery plant pots from being made each year. So who wins? Let's visit all of the stakeholders:
- Stonyfield Yogurt: Stonyfield wins because it's able to help
eliminate its yogurt containers as an idea of waste, generate lots of
positive PR, and engage its cusomters in a national collection program.
- TerraCycle: We win because we are able to launch another product, the
raw material of which is funded by Stonyfield.
- The retailers: The retailers that sell Stonyfield win because the
product is now even more sustainable. The retailers that sell the
upcycled product win because they now have the most eco-friendly nursery planting pot in the marketplace.
- The customers: They win because both yogurt and nursery planting pots
get more sustainable without increasing their prices.
- The environment: This is the big win. Instead of yogurt containers
going to landfills, they will have another life. Fewer nursery pots will
be made, reducing their damage to the environment. And most importantly, hundreds of thousands of Americans will be educated and take real action around the environment, recycling, and reusing.
Here is how Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield's founder and CEO, reacted when we pitched the idea to him:
Around the same time we shook hands with Gary, we also shook hands with Seth Goldman at Honest Tea. Within months of those handshakes, Clif Bar joined in as did Capri Sun -- a billion dollar Kraft Foods brand -- which came on board with a million dollar contract.
Within months, you'll see simialr solutions popping up around all sorts of
waste streams from plastic bags to cookie wrappers to aerosol cans.
That's a true eco-capitalist win-win-win.
Last updated: Mar 12, 2008
TOM SZAKY is the founder of TerraCycle, a New Jersey based company that makes fertilizer using worms and produces retail products from recycled goods. The firm was started while he was a student at Princeton University. Tom was named "The No. 1 CEO Under Thirty" by Inc. magazine in its July 2006 issue.