Campus is testing ground for environmentally friendly venture

July 20, 2004 3:37 p.m.

Princeton junior Chris Aguilar had an offer to work this summer as an analyst for a major financial firm, but when the opportunity came along to cut grass and shovel worm droppings, he jumped at it.

Aguilar wasn't lowering his ambitions; he was opting to join classmates in a startup business selling an environmentally friendly lawn-care service. The business is an offshoot of another student's startup company, called TerraCycle, which uses worms to compost garbage and turn it into fertilizer.

"I wanted to be involved in starting a business," Aguilar said. "There is no way you would get that experience working for a big company."

Aguilar is working on the business, called TerraCycle Lawns, with classmate Alex Salzman and sophomore Caitlin Edwards, as well as with Rob Hedden, who graduated this spring from the College of New Jersey.

The four entrepreneurs have signed up local homeowners as clients and are mowing their grass and applying worm-produced fertilizer. They also have arranged to test their product at Princeton University, helping to restore turf in courtyards where the tents and heavy foot traffic of Reunions killed the grass.

"We only have a short period in the growing season to get a lawn going again before the students get back in the fall," said Jim Consolloy, the University's grounds manager. "This may help us reduce the turnaround time, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to try an all-organic fertilizer."

The students started their tests in the courtyard between the Edwards, Little and Witherspoon dormitories. They roped off triangular plots in the courtyard and are applying their fertilizer in different amounts and frequencies and will compare the results with a plot that has just the conventional inorganic fertilizer that the University usually uses. The students are expanding their tests to the Wilcox and Joline courtyards.

TerraCycle was founded by former Princeton student Tom Szaky, who has taken a leave from college to run the company. The company uses small but voracious red worms to turn common garbage into high-quality compost and fertilizers. Among various marketing plans, the company is selling a liquid form of the fertilizer in reused soda bottles through the Home Depot Web site.

Szaky and Salzman started talking last fall about looking for a market for the worm-based fertilizers in lawn care. After discussing the idea and recruiting friends, Salzman decided the best way to encourage homeowners to buy the product for their lawns was to offer a full lawn-care service. So, with startup money for TerraCycle, Salzman and friends bought lawn mowers and went into business.

"What really caught my attention was the opportunity to combine interests in business and the environment," said Salzman, who was a classmate of Szaky's in high school in Toronto. He had been intrigued with the idea of "environmental capitalism" -- companies making a profit from environmentally sustainable products -- but did not know of any practical examples. "But then I found out that is exactly what Tom was doing."

Hedden said that in addition to the company's focus on organic products, he liked TerraCycle's community oriented initiatives, such as organizing fund-raisers for schools in which students collect plastic bottles and the company buys them to use as containers for its liquid fertilizer product. He chose to work with TerraCycle over an engineering job he had lined up.

"I turned it down because this seemed more interesting to me, doing something with the environment and being involved in the community," Hedden said. "And it's a great group of people with similar interests."

Consolloy said it is too early to tell how much of a difference the worm droppings will have on improving the lawns, but he would be grateful for an economical way to fortify the soil so the grass can withstand more traffic or will regrow more quickly from seed. "We have 15 courtyards and we have to get them all back in shape each year," he said. "The question is: Could we somehow get more sustainable turf?"

Contact: Eric Quinones (609) 258-3601