‘I’d like to buy your trash.’ That request earned Spencer Brown, a product designer and founder of Rent-a-Green Box, plenty of sceptical looks when he stepped onto a southern Californian landfill six years ago with a revolutionary idea for how people move their possessions. ‘I said I would personally eliminate the cardboard box from the moving industry, the entire world industry, and they were like, “You’re crazy,” Brown says. ‘When I started buying trash, the trash haulers said you’re either the dumbest guy we know or the smartest.’
Brown’s idea was to create reusable moving products from waste, converting bleach bottles into boxes, bottle caps into twisty-ties and aluminium cans into dollies. For him it was a no-brainer, and simply the responsible thing to do. ‘Why would we cut down a tree to make a box and throw it away, when we could use our trash to make a better product that lasts 400 uses, and when it’s done I grind it up and make another product?’ he asks. Talking to Brown, whether it’s for a minute or an hour, one thing becomes manifestly clear: the man loves saving trees. ‘I’m the ultimate tree-hugger. I’m the newtree-hugger. Not the other guy who is smoking pot and dancing around and talking about what should be,’ Brown says. ‘I’m the guy in the landfill with my bio-suit, saying I’m going to buy all this trash from you. ‘And now they take me seriously,’ he adds. ‘It’s taken six years, but when I show up I’m a bona fide eco rock star.' An inventor at heart and by trade, Brown conceived the idea for converting trash into usable products after being sickened by the sight of a landfill’s cardboard mountains. His epiphany for the company, however, came later when he realised that selling materials wasn’t the way to go. ‘That was the “aha” moment. Not using the trash, but making the trash into a box I can rent, because then I could have a superior-quality product.’
Crafted with user-friendliness in mind, the upcycled plastic moving crates, called RECO packs, and Rent-a-Green Box’s other sustainable products won the company numerous accolades, including a 2008 Governor’s Economic and Environmental Leadership Award, California’s most prestigious environmental honour. Brown rates his company as one of the most decorated green businesses in the world, but it’s more than sustainability that makes it effective. By delivering products to people’s homes, and picking them up in trucks powered by biodiesel, he explains that customers can trim moving costs by 50% when accounting for labour, materials and time spent. ‘Would you rather use a bleach bottle made into a box that’s delivered to you for a couple of weeks at half the cost of cardboard, or cut down a tree and help corporate America trash our planet?’ Brown asks. ‘What are they going to do? Support the green guy. He’s cheap, he’s cool and he’s fun. He’s authentic. He’s passionate, and he wants change.’
A father of nine-year-old twins, who spends considerable time talking to school groups and spreading the word about his company, Brown admits that not everyone loves his idea. ‘Cardboard people hate us and movers hate us because we’re stopping their system,’ he says. ‘Man, they’ll sell you a ton of cardboard because they make a ton of money and they don’t care where it goes. But I care. It affects my kids’ future; it affects the future of our planet.’
People still use cardboard boxes, but from his Orange County home base, an office full of reused-junk furniture, Brown continues to chip away at the acres of refuse in landfills. (In part by turning cardboard pulp into packing-foam substitute.) Business is good, and he’s franchising the Rent-a-Green Box recipe outside of southern California and soon, he hopes, outside of the United States.
‘Change is inevitable. We evolve, and you’re seeing one of the great transformations of our world. Instead of the Industrial Revolution or the Internet Revolution, now it’s the Green Revolution,’ Brown says. ‘Everything is going green. People are saying, “Well, it’s a trend,” but it’s not. This is here to stay. This isn’t going anywhere. Sustainability is the solution.’