November 15, 2005

Entrepreneurs Sell Bottled 'Worm Poop'

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Worm poop. If you can sell that, you’ve got a knack for business.

Now package that worm poop in old 20-ounce plastic bottles and convince major stores to carry it on their shelves. Get schools, stadiums, and businesses involved in a nationwide effort to collect those bottles. In your factory, employ more worms than you employ people – and then cover every square foot of it with graffiti. If possible.

If you can do that, you’ve got a knack for revolution.

“Don’t think about business the way you thought about business,” Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s founder and chief executive officer tells Cornell students who work at the company’s Ithaca office. “If you have a good idea, we’ll make it real.”

Szaky’s good idea was – literally – garbage. During their freshman year at Princeton, Szaky and his friend Jon Beyer scraped together $20,000 to find a way to mass-produce “worm poop” and sell it as an all-natural fertilizer. Think of kitchen composting on a larger scale and you’ll understand how TerraCycle got its start.

It is the first consumer product to be made from and packaged in waste, according to the company’s website.

“In the next 25 years, business will have to fundamentally change,” said Steve Kurz ’07, who started up the Ithaca office last year. “We can’t keep using resources the way that we have, so we have to find new ways.”

“TerraCycle is eliminating the idea of garbage,” Kurz said. “We want to make it R to the fourth power – reduce, reuse, recycle, revolutionize.”

This year, he’s assembled a team of seven Cornell students to expand TerraCycle’s presence in Ithaca. They are Devangi Nishar ’09, Danielle Haigh ’08, Mike Zhu ’08, Jenny Song ’08, Marcus Gallagher ’08, Gabriel Lewis ’06 and Brian Warshay ’06.

“TerraCycle is the first company I’ve ever seen that has really applied deep sustainability in the way they think. They’re actually making waste a valuable resource,” said Lewis, who will focus on research and development.

The company has wormed its way into Canadian big box stores and is starting to pop up in stores around the states, including GreenStar in Ithaca. This year the young company is projected to gross $500,000.

“As a result of being environmentally conscious and socially responsible, not only do we not sacrifice anything on the financial side, we are actually more profitable,” Kurz said.

Since TerraCycle packaging comes from consumer waste, anyone who can toss a plastic bottle into a bin has the potential to be part of the company’s production process.

“Having people collect the bottles, you have a generation of Americans literally building the product,” Szaky said.

Kurz’s team is working to creatively expand TerraCycle’s bottle collection initiative, Bottle Brigade. Their goal is to set up the largest ever national recycling drive, and they’ve started by reaching out to the local community. The group was at Pyramid Mall this Saturday promoting the product at the America Recycles Day event.

Already, TerraCycle has been working to introduce Bottle Brigade at the Tampa Bay Lightning arena, and they are in advanced stages of negotiations with major companies about Bottle Brigade partnerships.

Additionally, the group is bringing the program to local Ithaca schools. For every bottle schools can collect for TerraCycle, they receive five cents. They can either keep the money or donate it to a charity of their choice. They also have the option of preserving rain forest space in South America. Szaky, only 23, speaks to the Cornell team with the calm, assured tone of a seasoned businessman.

“If we do this well – it is historic. You have a chance to really change the way consumers think,” he said.

“He has a way of talking that really gets you excited about it – I think that’s the reason that TerraCycle has done well, he’s gotten people to believe that a college student can go ahead and make this successful,” Lewis said.

“It’s going to be spectacular – either a spectacular disaster or a spectacular success – but it won’t be anything in between,” Szaky said.

As he speaks, he peppers his vision with both encouragement and wisdom, setting the standard for TerraCycle’s business dealings.

“Do not ever pretend,” he said, “that you know more than you do. The moment you make something up, it’s over. Make sure people know that you are a student. Every time you make a mistake, they’re going to help you even more; they’re going to help you grow.”

“You have to be kind. You have to be honest,” Szaky said.

“Hearing him talk really made me feel like I was a part of something important and groundbreaking,” Haigh said. “Steve and Tom really make you believe that this company will change how business is done.”

While Nishar is in charge of setting up the schools program, Haigh is working with sororities to introduce Bottle Brigade on campus.

“Whichever house has raised the most money by the end of the year will receive all the money earned from every house to put towards their own philanthropy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gallagher is finding ways to introduce the collection program on a large-scale level in certain states.

“This could potentially blow up and be huge,” he said.

Kurz explains that if they can implement Bottle Brigade state-wide, it would “effectively turn non-Bottle Bill states into Bottle Bill states through TerraCycle’s collection efforts.” ‘Bottle Bill’ states are those that offer deposits on returned recyclables.

The company’s small size makes it possible for students to have a large impact.

“I’m more involved than I thought I was going to be allowed to be,” Warshay said. “We can call up the main company and get any information when we need it. I have Tom’s cell phone number, can just call him.”

“TerraCycle does business in a different way,” Kurz explained.

From inviting local graffiti artists to decorate their Trenton factory to housing summer interns in a “Real World” style house and producing a reality-TV infomercial, the company is keeping business fresh.

“It’s a little more exciting than I expected – Steve made this so dynamic. Our input counts,” said Zhu, who is working to bring Bottle Brigade to other university campuses. “We have a lot of energy; we could probably find people at other universities with the same kind of fervor as us.” “This company is extremely appealing to college students. It’s something that kids want to be a part of when they hear about it,” Kurz said.

“I thought it was a great, environmentally-conscious company,” said Warshay when asked why he joined TerraCycle.

Zhu was also attracted by the company’s successful environmentally friendly model. “I’ve never seen it done before,” he said.

And what does Kurz like best about TerraCycle? “It doesn’t taste too bad.”

When you’re a guy selling worm poop, a sense of humor counts.

Archived article by Irena Djuric
Sun Staff Writer