Making Design Out of Rubbish
By PENELOPE GREEN
Published: August 10, 2011
Robert Wright for The New York Times
From left, Brad Sherman, Tiffany Threadgould and Lori Anselm, TerraCycle's design team.
Green Blog: A Facebook Game Teaches 'Upcycling' (August 11, 2011)
ON a blazing hot weekday late last month, 6 of the 82 summer interns at TerraCycle, a “waste solution development” company, were shoveling mortar into a trench in the company’s scrubby courtyard and layering it with beer and wine bottles, nearly 2,000 that they had plucked in the previous week or so from the Dumpsters of neighborhood bars.
The interns, students in product design, marketing and architecture, were overheated but cheerful, sorting bottles by color, hosing one another down as the temperature rose into the triple digits and comparing notes on which bars had the best bottle harvest. By midday, however, that harvest had been largely depleted, though the retaining wall the crew was building — a swoopy napoleon of trash — was still only a foot high. Max Gilbert, a 21-year-old product design student from Lehigh University, spoke for the group now huddled damply in the trapezoid of shade thrown by an umbrella when he said solemnly in his best Roy Scheider imitation, “We’re going to need more bottles. A lot more bottles.”
Welcome to Garbage Camp, a highly collaborative effort from the design studio of TerraCycle, which was started 10 years ago by a Princeton dropout, Tom Szaky, with a single product, Worm Poop, a plant food made from just what you’d think. (Garbage Camp is this reporter’s phrase, not the company’s.) Now, TerraCycle collects garbage from companies that make juice pouches, chips, candy and single-serve espresso tins, to name just a few of the waste streams it has a toe in, and turns them into items like tote bags, portable speakers and notebooks that are sold at big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart.
More specifically, TerraCycle collects the overruns of a company’s packaging — reams and reams of it — and upcycles it into festive and useful objects ablaze with product names, a relatively cheap and feel-good brand extension.
It also collects post-consumer waste — from used juice pouches to toothbrushes harvested by schools and charities — that it sells to recycling companies, which turn it into plastic pellets that can be made into driveway pavers, Adirondack chairs or building materials.
This summer, TerraCycle’s R & D department has been shredding diapers, looking for a way to recycle used ones. “There is no limit on gross here,” said Tiffany Threadgould, who runs the company’s design team, grinning broadly.
Ms. Threadgould, 37, is a product designer and writer who Make magazine once described as “the Martha Stewart of garbage.” She has been TerraCycle’s chief designer for the last three years, fashioning “upcycling” prototypes like pencil cases from Capri Sun juice pouches and clocks made from circuit boards, and leading workshops on how to weave pet-food bags into wallets and totes, for example, as she did last year for the 700 employees of a Hungarian pet-food company.
She is also something of a trash evangelist, preaching the crafty value of society’s discards for nearly a decade, selling trash-into-craft kits — like a wine-bottle lamp kit — through her company, RePlayGround. And she is gently exhorting readers to make their own clocks out of paint-can lids in a new book, “ReMake It!” (Sterling). “I want to change the way people think about garbage,” she’ll tell you earnestly and often.
TerraCycle, which collects a billion pieces of waste every few months, is mostly in the business of recycling or “garbage dealing,” said Albe Zakes, the company’s director of publicity.
But Ms. Threadgould’s upcycled designs, which represent about 10 percent of the business, are its most visible products, the bait that attracts companies like Kraft, the maker of Capri Sun juice pouches, into partnerships with TerraCycle. (Since its founding, the company has lurched about a bit, fending off a lawsuit from Miracle-Gro, which saw Worm Poop’s packaging as imitative of its own, and reorienting its business model, which originally focused on upcycling. This year, the company enjoyed a modest profit for the first time, Mr. Zakes said.)
And Ms. Threadgould’s activities, like her recent “trashy redesign” of TerraCycle’s offices and her deployment of those eager interns as wall builders — the wall being part of Ms. Threadgould’s landscape design for the courtyard — continues to burnish TerraCycle’s image. Her design efforts are marketing tools and propaganda materials that reiterate and amplify a single message: garbage can be fun.
Robert Wright for The New York Times
Last month, summer interns built a retaining wall out of mortar and bottles harvested from Dumpsters at neighborhood bars.
Robert Wright for The New York Times
A wall clock made out of pregnancy tests.
“Waste Does Not Exist” reads the spray-painted manifesto on the vintage sofa in TerraCycle’s lounge, which owes a lot, style-wise, to “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” It’s appealingly off-kilter.
On the walls: clocks made from the keys of a computer keyboard, scissors, a bike wheel; vintage mirrors painted red, blue and gold; and the company’s logo, which looks like an infinity symbol, writ large in juice pouches. The floor is covered with Astroturf discarded from a nearby soccer field. Tables are made from used fire extinguishers and salvaged wood, and wine barrels topped with a door.
The main workroom, where most of TerraCycle’s 65 young employees toil, has walls covered in graffiti and a checkerboard of rug remnants. Vinyl records serve as desk partitions; desks are old doors. Conference tables made from more old doors, some embellished with doorbells, stretch out in “rooms” with walls made from clear plastic soda bottles. There are Nerf guns everywhere.
“We want to do more interior design projects,” Ms. Threadgould said. “Offer our services to our partners so they can have their space ‘TerraCycled.’ ” She described a new project with Dennis Foy, the New Jersey-based restaurateur who has asked the team to invent a Philadelphia restaurant concept, from the branding to the décor.
Ms. Threadgould’s studio, which she shares with Lori Anselm, 48, a textile designer who commutes daily from Bucks County, Pa., and Brad Sherman, 26, a designer with a master’s degree in sustainability, looks like design studios the world over, except that its shelves are lined with boxes labeled variously: Cheerios boxes, Yak Paks, Pepsi bottle caps, Colgate containers, Burberry tie scraps and pregnancy tests.
Pregnancy tests? “Yeah, we get all sorts of things from our partners,” Ms. Threadgould said. “Brad made a really cool clock out of those.”
At a table, Laura Simons, 21, and Ashley Santee, 22, interns on loan for six months from the design and marketing program at Drexel University, were sewing fabric they had made by fusing Lunchables packaging. Kraft had asked for an art piece for its Lunchables conference room, Ms. Simons said, so they had made a plaque out of “techno-vomit,” Albe Zakes’s nickname for what is otherwise known as “wrapper board,” or shredded and fused packaging (it’s quite pretty, like silvery confetti), and enormous techno-vomit facsimiles of the contents of a Lunchables — cheese and lunch meat. Meanwhile, Mr. Gilbert, the intern from Lehigh, had built a lamp out of used glue sticks. It felt like visiting a Montessori preschool.
Next was lunch, ordered each day from a different restaurant (Mexican food on this day), that the whole staff partakes of, lining up like summer campers in the main room. After the meal, Ms. Anselm, the textile designer, offered a tour of TerraCycle’s garbage warehouse a few blocks away. The sickly sweet odor of rancid juice boxes, stacked in waist-high bales, made a visitor’s eyes water. It smelled like virtue.
There were also bales of chip bags and yogurt cups and circuit boards, and little hills of U.P.S. freight packs, sent by schools and community groups that form “brigades” to collect used packaging.
“We come over here to get inspired,” she said, gazing fondly at a berm formed by canvas mailbags, 20,000 of them. “We love the non-branded garbage,” she added. “There’s only so much you can do with an M & M wrapper.”