| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


Waste Warriors: An Industry Emerges from Philadelphia's Reclaimed Goods

Empty chip bags and that tomato you left in the fridge too long are among the things you don't want lying around your living space. It takes up a lot of room. It can smell nasty. Why else would we mindlessly toss it in the garbage can and dutifully haul it out to the curb, perhaps even paying for the privilege?

Garbage is a human invention. There is no real trash in nature. Every fallen tree, every discarded seed, becomes part of the ecosystem. And the Greater Philadelphia region is home to a growing number of businesses that make a profit off the things most people throw away, reintroducing the idea that objects still have a purpose after outlasting their apparent usefulness.

Even the industry's largest, most well-established players like Waste Management, which already operated three sorting facilities in the region, are ramping up. Late last year, the Houston-based company opened a $20 million LEED-Silver certified, single-stream recycling facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

But much of this industry's growth in the region isn't tied to the fate of a plastic water bottle. It has taken root in other materials.

Composting Seeds Businesses
"Since the earth started, Mother Nature composted materials," says Nelson Widell, a partner with Rhode Island-based Peninsula Compost, which expanded to Delaware to open the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center in 2009.

When corncobs, unsold rawhide bones and skeletal Christmas trees arrive, they're first dumped into a metal building with an overpowering odor of ammonia. Then workers sort the garbage – which Widell calls the "ingredients" – and combine it into the right combination of moisture, carbon and nitrogen. After that the so-called "recipe" is piled up in rows and covered so microbes can spend eight weeks turning it into compost. Outdoors the place smells faintly of mulch.

"We're feeding the microbes," Widell explains. "The right mixture of material keeps them happy and healthy and reproducing."

He got his start in the business early, working for his father, a contractor who built sewage treatment plants. In the 1970s he got into composting sewage sludge, perhaps the waste people want the least to do with.

Widell, 63, recalls a time when his family's food scraps were given to farmers and much less trash was discarded. "When I was a kid I used to collect bottles down to Ocean City and sell them for two cents," he says.

Now grocery stores, schools, prisons and restaurants from Baltimore to New York City send truckloads of waste to Wilmington. Smaller-scale entrepreneurs collect material from Philadelphia households and sell it at the composting plant. In June Princeton Township, N.J., started a pilot curbside-collection program.

"We believed that if we built a plant, people will come," Widell says. "And we've been proven right."

A major reason this business model works is that Peninsula charges those who bring waste in and can also charge for the resulting compost. Same goes for South Philly's Bennett Compost, which charges for pick-up and the finished product.

Avoiding the Landfill
The setup is similar at Revolution Recovery, located in the Northeast's Mayfair section, which recycles leftovers from construction projects. But Revolution's special project manager, Fern Gookin, points out that when trash collectors take garbage to a landfill, they're paying for it to be buried. If they take it to a recycling facility they're paying for the process of sorting it and making it useful again. Plus, landfills usually charge more.

Revolution specializes in bulky stuff that's hard to get rid of: Shingles, carpet, ceiling tiles, wood pallets, building rubble. Most comes on trucks from around the Philadelphia region. It's poured onto a conveyor belt and sorted into bunkers for different types of material. "It seems like there's never a shortage," Gookin says.

Untreated, unpainted wood is chipped into mulch and the rest is sold, destined to be converted into products like pavement mixture and farm animal bedding. About 20 percent of what Revolution receives isn't recycled – prices for materials constantly fluctuate and it's not profitable to take apart trash like discarded office chairs – but goes to waste-to-energy plants or landfills.

But the company would rather find someone to buy obscure trash before throwing it out. That explains the piles of mattresses and stacks of PVC pipe in the sorting building one recent day. Sometimes Revolution turns to Craigslist to find buyers.

As part of an ongoing research project on emerging green industries, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia studied businesses that specialize in construction waste. Kate Houstoun, the network's director of green economy initiatives, sees plenty of potential for businesses like Revolution to grow in the region, largely because young adults renovating houses are interested in using sustainable building products.

"I get the sense that there is a growing enthusiasm for recovered materials," she says.

Greenworks Philadelphia, an ambitious plan with 15 sustainability targets set by Mayor Nutter's Office of Sustainability, aims to divert 70 percent of solid waste from landfills. According to a progress report issued last year, that goal is 36-percent fulfilled.

From Bowling Lane to Conference Room Table
In an ideal world, every piece of trash would have potential for new life. And TerraCycle, has gotten national attention for making cool products out of energy-bar wrappers and bicycle chains (CEO Tom Szaky was on the cover of Inc. in 2006) Partitions at its Trenton office are made of empty soda bottles and old vinyl records. Company spokesman Albe Zakes thinks little of climbing on a conference room table, a repurposed bowling lane.

TerraCycle started in 2002, based on Szaky's idea to employ worms to compost food waste and sell the fertilizer in discarded bottles. This "worm poop" is still one of its biggest sellers. But the company's also gotten noticed for the things it makes out of the packaging and electronics that clutter so many trash cans.

People from as far away as Germany and Argentina send components like tortilla bags and plastic cups to TerraCycle, which gives money to charities and school groups. The company estimates more than 2 million people have collected trash, mostly as part of fundraisers. Individuals can also join these so-called "Brigades," but they have to designate a charity to get their money. The collections are sent to manufacturers that turn them into sellable products.

TerraCycle makes money from this process by partnering with companies that make the products in the packaging it collects. That's necessary because the manufacturers own the trademarks on the packages. But a partnership with Capri Sun allows TerraCycle to collect empty juice packs and "upcycle" them into folders. "A Capri Sun pack lasts about six seconds in a kid's hand," Zakes says. "A homework folder like this last a whole school year, or two or three." The packets can also be recycled into plastic pellets used for other products.

The company has figured out potential uses for pretty much every kind of trash except hazardous material, Zakes says. So in September it hopes to launch a service allowing people to send their household trash -- including the likes of cigarette butts and dirty diapers – in for reuse. People would pay to send their waste, but Zakes says the process wouldn't be much different from paying for curbside pickup.

For businesses like this to flourish in the Philadelphia region, Houstoun says they'll need to charge collection rates low enough for their services to make economic sense. The perfect scenario would pay people to send in their trash – sort of like TerraCycle's donations in return for waste. But more people have to learn about the diversity of what can be recycled and what it can be turned into.

"We haven't invested enough in educating customers," Houstoun says.

REBECCA VANDERMEULEN is a freelance writer based near Downingtown. She serves as Innovation and Jobs News editor for sister publication Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.


Tom Szaky CEO of TerraCycle

TerraCycle showroom


Flip-flops to Playground

Wrapper-fusing machine that connects used packaging wrappers

Transformation of energy bar


Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts