The Happy Economics of Making Products from Waste
BY Tom Szaky
We are used to thinking of waste as a physical thing. For example, and
most typically, what is thrown out in our garbage cans and ends up in
landfills. But what is waste? If we define waste as anything that we are
willing to pay to remove, then the idea of waste can be extended beyond the
physical objects that end up in our garbage can.
Take graffiti, we spend millions of tax dollars every year to remove it
From our walls, train cars, etc. It is seen as a huge negative. Just
type the word "graffiti" into Google News, and you'll see. However, graffiti can also be seen as a trendy art form. I know a number of people in New York City who
have paid big bucks to have a piece thrown up on one of their loft walls.
The economics behind this irony suggest that graffiti in the wrong place = a
big $$$ and social negative, but graffiti in the right place = a big
$$$ and social positive. The first step in discovering this was to talk
with the police in TerraCycle's hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, and see first hand the problems they have keeping the graf crews at bay. On the flip side, the graf crews hate
running from the Police. I had someone show me a monstrous scar on his
leg from pumping a barb wired fence. After seeing all of this, we opened up our
factory and told the graf crews that they can paint anything hey want -- except nudity and gang signs -- whenever they want.
The idea took off! Our building is now completely repainted every month or so, and we've thrown three big graffiti jams to bring the community together:
Best of all, we get beautiful art that changes every month, we spend no money, and we're now doing everyone a favor by taking the graf crews off the streets.
So where do you go now? The graf jams are cute, but how do you go big?
How about commercializing this waste paradigm in the main stream? Six
months ago we developed a line of graffiti products, and this month every
Home Depot on the East Coast is getting a shipment of our graffiti
planting pots (pots made from crushed computers and painted by the inner city
artists). Not only are they eco-friendly, but they are also unique and bold works of art that compete on price and performance against the pots that are imported from China.
This is just the beginning. We already have strong interest from Office
Max and a number of other major retailers on graffiti trash cans and other similar ideas.
Every time you flip a waste paradigm on its side, there is almost always a
major economic, social, and environmental benefit. Cheers to Ecocapitalism!
Last updated: Mar 18, 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.