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Toronto's Rose Avenue Junior Public School students, part of the school's E.C.O.Team, collect empty drink pouches for TerraCycle Inc. to "upcycle" into products like pencil cases. (TerraCycle)
Toronto's Rose Avenue Junior Public School students, part of the school's E.C.O.Team, collect empty drink pouches for TerraCycle Inc. to "upcycle" into products like pencil cases. (TerraCycle)

Green Solutions

A new life for stuff that can't be recycled Add to ...

The pressing need to find an enviro-friendly way to package worm poop and the excitement of an eight-year-old Trenton, N.J., boy came together with sweet synchronicity about seven years ago. The end result has been not only a major leap forward in recycling but also last year's best-selling item for the near ubiquitous Target department store chain in the United States.

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If you want to see the results of that daisy chain of discovery, drop by your local Wal-Mart next year. Plans are under way for Wal-Mart to stock in Canada - as it already does south of the border - many of the 178 items produced by TerraCycle Inc.

You will be able to spot them in a second: Pencil cases, backpacks and tote bags, all made from drink, snack and candy pouches. Not recycled pouches. The materials that make up that form of packaging defy today's recycling technology.

TerraCycle Canada Inc. president Robin Tator calls the practice "upcycling." The Toronto-based Canadian offshoot of Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle Inc. collects the pouches, washes them and ships them off to third-party manufacturers, which stitch them together to make those unique cases, packs and totes.

U.S. Target stores sold half a million of the pencil cases last year, he says.

Torn or damaged pouches are ground up and then formed into things such as fence posts, planting pots and waste baskets.

"We don't waste a thing," Mr. Tator says. "This whole business is based on the idea that there is a life after first use for common packaging materials. Upcycling is all about reusing original materials."

While bags and other items made out of drink pouches and other waste materials have been sold in North America for a while, TerraCycle also involves the community - such as school children - in collecting the raw materials.

The Canadian arm is only months old. Mr. Tator and his handful of staff took over a small warehouse and began organizing brigades of children across the country to collect the pouches in December. They will need at least half a million of them before manufacturing can start, he says. That will likely take until the end of the year.

TerraCycle already has operations in the United States, Britain, Brazil and Mexico. Expanding to Canada, however, has been a dream of both Mr. Tator and TerraCycle's original founder Tom Szaky. Both are Toronto natives. They have known each other since they were 14 and, now in their late 20s, they manage an international company with 2009 revenues of $7.5-million (U.S.), about 63,400 collection locations worldwide and an army of almost nine million collecting discarded drink, candy and snack packages.

To date, according to Mr. Tator, TerraCycle has saved about 1.3 billion otherwise unrecycleable items from landfills.

The young company has also won the financial backing of huge global giants such as Kraft Foods, Mars Inc., Kimberly-Clark, Frito-Lay, Keebler, Kashi, 3-M and Neosporin. All of them kick in money each year to reward the brigades of children and adults who collect their packaging and ship it off to TerraCycle.

The Canadian operation, though, will have a single sponsor for its start-up here. TerraCycle Canada has negotiated six months exclusivity with Kraft Canada Inc.

"But after that period we are absolutely sure the rest of our U.S. sponsors will follow us here," Mr. Tator says.

"The concept of reusing packaging without the need for recycling is terrific," says Jo-Anne St. Goddard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario. "Another major plus is that TerraCycle involves children in the collection process.''

"It educates them and involves them, which is what we need to ensure the future."

Back to worm poop and that eight-year-old boy. In 2001 Mr. Szaky was a student at Princeton University in Trenton. To raise extra spending cash he won the rights to feed the table scraps from the cafeteria to an army of worms, who obligingly turned it into poop, which he liquefied and sold as organic fertilizer.

To maintain the enviro-friendly theme, he packaged it in used plastic soda pop bottles. To collect the bottles, he paid local school children a bounty for each bottle.

Mr. Tator joined his friend two years later.

As he explains the story, TerraCycle would have brigades of school children collect the bottles as a way to raise money for their schools. TerraCycle would wash the bottles but would leave on the small coloured plastic ring that connected the old twist cap to the neck of the bottle. It would then fill the bottle with liquified worm poop, twist on a new cap, paste on a label and stock the shelves of local gardening and hardware stores.

"One day I was seeing how sales were going in a store in Trenton and this eight-year-old comes by with his mom," Mr. Tator says. "He spots our worm poop and says, 'Look mom, an orange ring. That could be the bottle I collected.' "

For Mr. Tator it was one of those eureka moments. If children had such a strong emotional identification with worm poop bottles, the tug to own something they could use every day made from drink and snack pouches they had saved from landfills would likely be enormous.

The Teracycle process begins with brigades of volunteers. In Canada currently there are 300 of them: the drink punch brigades, which collect Kool-Aid Jammers and Del Monte beverages; the cookie/cracker wrapper brigades, which collect Mr. Christie cookie and cracker wrappers and Kraft Dinner cracker snack packs; and the back-to-nature nut snacks brigades, which collect any form of Kraft's Back to Nature Nut Snacks.

Packaging is collected in separate bins, according to type of packaging, in schools and community centres and, when they're full, the brigades call TerraCycle, which arranges to have the contents picked up and shipped to Toronto. TerraCycle pays 2 cents a container, cutting cheques twice a year - in June and January. By the end of last year, brigades globally had raised about $607,300 for various local charities.

The topper from TerraCycle's point of view is that there is good money in upcycling. Mr. Tator says he expects the Canadian operations to turn a profit within a year.

"TerraCycle is taking recycling a major step further," says James Downham, president of the Canadian Packaging Association. Packaging, he points out, is a $12-billion a year industry in Canada and his group's 375 members are intent on reducing the size and weight of packaging while improving its biodegradability.

"This, however, takes us into an entirely new dimension."

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