May 16, 2021

You’re the Boss Blog: A Recycling Company’s New Office Reflects Its Ethic

TerraCycle's offices after the redesign.TerraCycle’s offices after the redesign.

Sustainable Profits

The challenges of a waste-recycling business.

We recently moved into our newly redesigned offices and in the process managed to strike an interesting balance. Our goal was to embrace our growth from a basement start-up to a proper business with real revenue and an employee manual while still preserving what we think is special about our culture: excitement and out-of-the-box thinking. Here’s what we did.

In the beginning, TerraCycle had a funky office environment because that was all we could afford. The walls were always painted in various bright colors — typically with rejected color mixes from local paint stores — and they were always covered with various art pieces we could find free, such as paintings from the local high school art department and various objects people thought fit to throw out. I was inspired to create such a space by Jim Budman, founder of Budman Studio. The concept behind Jim’s vision is to facilitate art and create an ever-changing and highly stimulating environment for creative thought. When I went to Princeton, I started spending weekends at his SoHo studio to escape our Milwaukee’s Best-drenched parties (this New York Times article from 2001 captures what those weekends were like.)

Today, TerraCycle’s main headquarters is a 20,000-square-foot converted warehouse, a former newspaper distribution facility, in Trenton. When we first moved in, we used the building pretty much as it was designed to be used, with 4,000 square feet of office space and the rest for manufacturing and warehousing. Over time, as we grew, we experienced major crowding issues, with two to three people per desk and little space for our belongings.

In our recent renovation, we converted the entire 20,000 square feet of warehouse into office space. It took our design team close to six months and $20,000 to complete the space, every element of which is made of trash. For example: the walls are made from soda bottles and vinyl records, our desks are all old doors, our floor is covered with scrap carpet pieces and the list goes on. The offices now house about 100 employees.

To emphasize TerraCycle’s culture, we accentuated the use of graffiti, both in the interior and exterior. Eight years ago I used to throw Friday night art parties at the office. We’d hang a big canvas and get people to paint it. (Funny side note: people at the parties often ended up spending more time painting each other than the canvas.) A few graffiti guys would occasionally show up at the parties, and I learned that street artists have a challenge finding walls they can paint legally. So I offered up ours. Today, TerraCycle’s exterior walls are repainted very week by hundreds of graffiti artists. When we renovated the office, we invited them to do the inside as well.

The majority of the original 4,000 square feet of office space was converted into a showroom of recycled garbage, complete with a nine-hole miniature golf course. We emphasized art again by allowing local artists to rotate their art on our walls — simply copying the “coffee shop art” model. It turns out that many of our employees and visitors buy the art regularly for their private use. We did have a few challenges, including a big argument over whether to put up walls. I compromised on my desire for no walls by agreeing to a ban on permanent walls.

When you walk into TerraCycle’s offices today, it’s hard to miss our waste-to-product business model running through the aesthetic of our interior design. The effects on our business have been monumental compared to the cost incurred. When people visit, they are often blown away by the space, which helps them fall in love our mission. We’ve even had visitors ask our design team to do similar designs for their spaces, whether a restaurant or a corporate board room.

The redesign has also given staff morale a major boost, in part by allowing everyone to get involved in what the environment looks and feels like. Anyone can ask the design team to customize his or her space. People have been keeping their areas cleaner — although not necessarily tidier — and generally respect the communal areas much more than before.

As a result, I’m even more convinced that office space is critical. The best news is that it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Tom Szaky is the chief executive of TerraCycle, which is based in Trenton.

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