Lately, Iâ€™ve been thinking a lot about garbage. And what we can do about it. Turning yogurt containers into toothbrushes hints at the answer, as Iâ€™ll explain. But first, some dialog from Don DeLilloâ€™s sprawling novel, Underworld (which I never finished). The protagonist, Nick Shay, who works for a company called Waste Containment, is talking about garbage with a colleague:
â€œI find that everything I see is garbageâ€¦I went to a new restaurant last week, nice new place, you know, and I find myself looking at scraps of food on peopleâ€™s plates. Leftovers. I see butts in ashrays. And when we get outside.â€
â€œYou see it everywhere because it is everywhere.â€
â€œBut I didnâ€™t see it before.â€
â€œYouâ€™re enlightened now. Be grateful,â€ I said.
I daresay Iâ€™m enlightened now, too. Iâ€™ve spent a couple of months reporting and writing about garbage, for a feature story that FORTUNE will soon publish. It has made me self-conscious every time I throw anything away, or walk by a trash can on a sidewalk, or see someone drinking bottled water. I’m thinking about composting.
We are, it almost goes without saying, a wasteful and waste-full society. Americans generate, on average, about 4.54 pounds of garbage a day. You can look it up.
My reporting connected me with Eric Hudson, who is the CEO of a small but growing company called Recycline, which points to a way out of the garbage problem. Based in Waltham, Mass., Recycline makes toothbrushes for adults and kids, a tongue cleaner, and a razor with replacement blades, all from recycled content, all using the Preserve brand name. This conserves natural resources, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gases and helps drive the market for recycling, which to work needs a steady demand for recycled feedstock.
Hudson, who is 44, started the company in the mid-1990s. After working as a stock trader and a management consultant, he wanted to create a business that was good for the planet. “I had that tree-hugger bent, growing up in the Berkshires,” he told me. “And I had the idea that the recyling industry needed a greater demand company.” He launched his first product, a toothbrush in 1997, expanded slowly, and turned his first profit last year. Recycline is now a “multi-million dollar” business, he says, with fewer than a dozen full-time people. Manufacturing is outsourced.
But what about the yogurt? Well, that comes from Stonyfield Farm, one of my favorite socially responsible companies, and a hugely successful one, too. (Not to mention tasty and healthful.) Stonyfield encourages people to send the yogurt cups back to the company and, remarkably, many do. For about five years, Stonyfield and Recycline have partnered so that plastic from the yogurt cups is processed and eventually winds up in the handle of Preserve toothbrushes.
Now, this is not going to solve America’s garbage problem (although we do, according to Recycline, throw out two toothbrushes a year per person, generating 50 million pounds of waste a year). But it’s a small step in the right direction. Big players like Wal-Mart, Dell, HP, the city of San Francisco and even a few forward-thinking trash companies are taking bigger steps. Herman Miller, Steelcase and Patagonia are doing exciting work, as is Nike, which like Wal-Mart has a goal of zero waste.
Two fine books on this topic, for those who, like me, are mildly obsessed: Garbage Land: On The Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Hoyte and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers. More to come, next week, including a look at that infernal dilemma – paper or plastic?