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TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky
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Credit: Photos: TerraCycle

The smallest members of TerraCycle's workforce—millions of red worms—eat garbage all day long to create the waste material serving as the base for the company's fertilizer and soil products.

Everyone who works for a living has to deal with a lot of garbage. Some of us make a good living hauling real garbage on a daily basis. One New Jersey company has taken it one step further and turned heaps of unwanted trash into a money-making and earth-saving venture.

Trenton-based TerraCycle offers a line of eco-friendly plant products for everyone from individual homeowners to large-scale landscapers. The products' main ingredient: worm feces. Gross, maybe, but the potent poop—created after the crawlers munch down on rotting garbage—serves as a rich nutrient to lawns and all sorts of plants, with zero impact on the environment.

The business started small six years ago in Tom Szaky's Princeton University dorm room. Looking to process solid waste into a useful product, he came up with the idea to put worms to work on waste. His business plan won a million-dollar startup contest, but he gave the bucks back because he wanted to maintain control of the burgeoning company's direction.

In 2004, Home Depot began selling TerraCycle's plant food on its Web site. Today, Szaky's company puts 30,000 gallons of the ca-ca concoction into 50,000 bottles a week. Its product line is hawked in 7000 locations—in Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Whole Foods, and a host of other big retailers—in addition to the TerraCycle Web site (www.terracycle.net), where commercial and municipal users can place bulk orders. Szaky estimates the little company that could, could hit $5 million in sales this year.

Here's how the process works, from worms to Wal-Mart: The company collects high-quality, source-separated organic waste, thus saving it from the landfill. The junk is mixed at TerraCycle's Conversion Center into special formulas, which are moved through a computer-driven, microbial-enhancing process that naturally brings the temperature above 150º F. After five days, the material enters a vermicomposting unit, where millions of red worms gobble up the delicious detritus. The resulting dung is separated out, liquefied over a week, then bottled.

The “green” aspect of the product extends to its packaging, in the form of direct recycling. The fertilizers, plant food, soil, and deer repellent are sold in plastic soda bottles and milk jugs taken directly from the solid waste stream. The company collects many of these through its Bottle Brigade program: Individuals and organizations sign up through the company Web site, collect 20-ounce plastic soda bottles, then return them to the firm in special boxes. Each bottle earns a five-cent reward, either as cash or as a charitable donation. Even the spray nozzles on the top of the fertilizer bottles are direct-recycled leftovers taken off the hands of manufacturers with excess sprayers.

Many green-minded products on the market offer environmental friendliness at a not-so-friendly premium price. However, TerraCycle's practice of rescuing refuse, recycling bottles, and recruiting volunteers saves money—and the worms work for cheap.

“Our product is the same price or less than synthetic competitors,” chief marketing officer Jill Chodorov says. “It's high-quality, all-natural, and very environmentally friendly.”