Albe Zakes is constantly surrounded by a shrine to garbage. The desks in his office are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, and the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and graffiti covers every wall.
But considering his job, the workplace makes sense: he’s in charge of media relations for TerraCycle Inc., which sells consumer products made from recycled waste. The company launched in 2001, selling worm poop as fertilizer to retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Now, TerraCycle recycles items like Frito-Lay chip bags, Clif Bar wrappers, and Capri Sun pouches to create tote bags, iPhone cases, and MP3 speakers.
Zakes first planted his environmental roots at the University of Colorado, where he worked for Hip Hop Congress, a group spreading social and political awareness through art, music, and poetry. Below, he talks about eating worm poop, a surefire way to get hired, and the grossest thing he’s ever made from trash.
Title: Global Vice President of Media Relations, TerraCycle, Inc.
Graduated from: University of Colorado Boulder, degree in literature and psychology
Based out of: Trenton, N.J.
TerraCycle’s annual revenue: $18 to 20 million projected for this year
Previous jobs: There aren’t any. I began interning at TerraCycle right out of college.
In your own words, what is TerraCycle? It began as a way to reduce garbage output. We collected waste and fed it to worms, then sold the worm poop to farmers in soda bottles, which gave us market distinction in the early years. Since we couldn’t make money just from the fertilizer, we expanded our product base. We try to challenge the way people think.
How you got the job: Right after I graduated in 2006, [TerraCycle CEO and founder] Tom Szaky was on the cover of Inc. Magazine. I read about what the company stood for, and it called to me – so I applied for a job, and ended up with an internship that turned full-time.
How did you shape the PR department? Initially, we were required to make 50 pitch phone calls a day. I eventually convinced Tom that we needed to research people and contact them slowly, to develop relationships. I never allowed email blasts. I also make sure we treat everyone the same way, from a mommy blogger in Montana to the executive editor of Businessweek.
How did your activism in college affect your job choice? I felt that the environmental movement and people around me [at University of Colorado] were short-sighted and thought small; the resistance against working with big corporations felt like spinning our wheels in the mud. Then I read Tom’s interview about the “belly of the beast” – if you want to change the way things are done, you need to do it from the inside. You need to work with them, not against them.
What have you learned at your job that nobody else knows? What worm poop tastes like.
And it tastes like? Dirt. It’s high-nutrient, organic-rich dirt.
Why the location choice of Trenton, N.J. for your headquarters? I have to confess, it is the seventh most dangerous city in the country based on homicide per capita. But Tom, a Princeton dropout, needed to buy cheap factory space, and Trenton offered that. He bought out an abandoned space that was once used for The New York Times printing distribution.
Are you planning on moving anytime soon? We’re absolutely staying here.
What are your hiring requirements? We’re a second-chance employer, which means we’ll hire people regardless of who they were become they came to us – regardless of criminal records. That has definitely backfired; we once had U.S. marshals on our factory floor, and almost-knife fights. But then again, we have people who have been working for us for years.
Biggest setback: Being tossed into a managerial job at a young age with almost no training. Hiring people is so difficult – some people look good on paper and do well in an interview, but then can’t deliver. It’s hard to figure out what’s bullshit.
How did you overcome that? With time. I set up weekly reports and meetings, and became more organized.
TerraCycle’s best-selling product: Historically, we’ve sold the most of worm poop. But another huge win was our line of back-to-school products for Target in 2009, which we sold hundreds of thousands of in one season.
Coolest product: Portable MP3 speakers made from recycled paper and various wrappers. [Sold at Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Five Below, and elsewhere.]
Grossest thing you’ve ever recycled from trash: We’re working on using cigarette butts, feminine hygiene products, and dirty diapers. So one of my jobs was going around and collecting cigarette butts.
Watch TerraCycle on Oprah, NBC, CNN, and more:
What’s the process of using chip bags and cookie wrappers to create new products? There are two ways. With upcycling, the wrappers maintain their branded look – you can still see the logo. We use heat presses to fuse the wrappers together, put on bolts, and cut and sew the material together like you’d do with regular fabric.
And the other way? It’s closer to regular recycling. The wrappers and containers are shredded and melted down into plastic pellets and can be used for garden paving stones and garbage cans.
How many chip bags are used to make one garbage can? A 32-gallon outdoor trash can with a lid takes 1,500 chip bags.
What does your office look like? It’s a shrine to garbage. The desks are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf with a mini putt-putt golf course. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and there’s graffiti on every wall – big, beautiful graffiti. The rugs are created from all different rug remnants, which can be a little nauseating.
What’s up next for TerraCycle? We’re moving to Australia and New Zealand, and then to Japan, India, and China next year.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Zakes suggests how to turn a green passion into a sustainable career.
1. Combine a degree in business with environmental studies or biology. Those business skills will always help – you need to be able to sell yourself and sell your company.
2. Instead of walking into a room and telling a potential employer what you could do, show them. Build your idea, and then walk in with a portfolio and present the materials and assets. Say, here’s what I would bring to the table on day one. If someone did that to me, they’d walk out of my office with a job.
3. Be willing to sweep the floors first if you really want to work somewhere.
Check out more eco-friendly posts on No Joe Schmo >> Elizabeth Olsen, founder of Olsenhaus, makes vegan shoes from purely recycled materials.