Thinking Outside the Can BY MATTHEW SHEARER
-The Product -Foreword -Introduction -Chapter 1: What do soda cans and music have in common? -Chapter 2: How are recycled iPod speakers saving the world? -Conclusion
The speaker insert for the Trash Amp on the garage work bench. 5
I first got interested in Trash Amps a few years ago. I had known Adam for a while and he showed me one of the earlier versions. I had watched gloom and doom documentaries before about greenhouse gasses on how we are destroying our environment, but none of it really stuck with me until I saw his creative idea to reuse cans as speakers. Ever since then, I have been involved with Trash Amps and have wanted to learn more. Iâ€™ve gone with Adam to the Tech Shop to cut out pieces of cardboard boxes for packaging and sheets of acrylic for speaker grills on the laser. Adam, my brother Will and I have spent hours at the dining room table peeling the paper of freshly cut grills and sorting them by color and shape. Being involved with Trash Amps has been a really interesting learning experience about the environment and how small business works, but I felt that there was a deeper story. 6
I decided to document Trash Amps because I wanted to learn more about sustainability and how their crazy idea to start a company selling iPod speakers in cans came to be. I am certainly glad I did because they revolutionized how I view sustainability and how I view small business. My interviews with Adam and Ron revealed that many of the aspects of a small sustainable business and how they choose to stay committed to their company values are a lot more complicated than most people think.
“When you see a landfill, that’s just depressing,”(Wegener) says the cofounder of Trash Amps, Adam Wegener. And he’s right, but what is even more depressing are some of the figures associated with our landfills. There is one landfill in particular and it is located in New Jersey and is called Fresh Kills. It holds 2.9 billion cubic yards of trash which is the equivalent volume of about 1,160 Pyramids of Cheops. Not only has this noxious stew of waste completely decimated the environment around it but it also produced 3 million gallons of leachate everyday before it was sealed. Leachate is toxic runoff from landfills that pollutes the environment. About 85% of what we throw away has market value so recycling could solve a lot of our waste problems and help our economy. The availability and endless possibilities of recycled goods has led to some creative business ideas such as Trash Amps. Original business ideas are popping up all over and helping set a good model of resourceful ways to protect the environment. 10
Although large corporations are responsible for a large amount of the total waste, we canâ€™t blame our waste problems on them or count on the corporations to fix the problems. We as individuals still need to be environmentally conscious which means, watching what we throw away, recycling what we can, and supporting sustainable businesses. Sustainable businesses, like the soda can speaker company Trash Amps, are starting to get a good hold in the economy today and with our help these businesses can be models of earth- friendly business practices. Because of the enormous amount of waste we produce and the finite amount of space we have on earth to put it, we need to focus more on recycling to help protect our environment, save money and energy, and to create new business opportunities to stimulate our economy.
Chapter 1: What do soda cans and music have in common?
A display board from the Valley Fair kiosk that displays the differnt grill options.
Trash Amps was started by Adam Wegener and Ron Sloat when they met at Cal-Poly. Adam majored in product design and Ron in electrical engineering. They have designed a built quite a few different projects over the years but Trash Amps is their biggest success. They got the idea from an Altoids tin speaker kit. It’s a pretty common kit you can find on the internet but they found out it doesn’t sound very well. Adam explained, “When we first started making the Trash Amps, it was effectively just a piece of PVC pipe. We cut the top and bottom, threw a speaker on there with hot glue and took the same electronics that were in that Altoids tin and kinda started from there.”(Wegener) Since then Trash Amps has come a long way. They started using soda cans and eventually got a patent for the plastic insert they use to house the speaker controls and cord. The can is vital to the sound quality of the product because it provides a much better acoustic chamber than the Altoids tin. William Shearer, a customer, says that, “What I like most about the Trash Amps is that the sound quality is really good and the concept is really cool too.”(Shearer) Will has been around Trash Amps for a while and has helped out numerous times by peeling the paper of the freshly cut grills. 17
For a while they had a kiosk at the Valley Fair Mall to test out demand for their product. Now that they had sold over 1500 units they have designed a new amp that has an auto-on auto-off function to preserve battery life. They have pre-sold some of these through their â€œIndiegogoâ€? campaign and are soon going to be ready to start manufacturing them in China. Up until now they have made every single unit in their garage by themselves. This will be a big step for the company and will hopefully help them achieve their goal of selling 10,000 units in the next year. Once they have grown a little more as a company, they intend to start experimenting with new ideas for environmentally friendly speakers.
The lunchbox pictured to the right has been experimented with as a possible alternative to the can speaker housing.
Adam says, â€œI think one of the most powerful things about Trash Amps is not the product itself but when people see it, they start to look around the room and think of all the other things that could be possibly made into a speakerâ€?(Wegener). One of Trash Amps main goals is to educate the community on sustainability and what they means for everyday life and the environment. Adam has gone and given talks at schools such as Castilleja about sustainability. He hopes to spark in kids creative ways of thinking about recycling and reuse. Adam and Ron also gave a presentation at a very large sustainability conference in San Francisco with a lot of the CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) of major corporations. They returned with new ideas for how they can keep Trash Amps sustainable as they grow. Some factories will use recycled material upon request, so they plan to use this to keep the Trash Amps even more environmentally friendly.
This an old sign that was used at their kiosk at Valley Fair. 20
Chapter 2: How are recycled iPod speakers saving the world?
“I think wherever Trash Amps goes sustainability should be a part of it and I think the real power of Trash concept is that it’s not just a speaker in a soda can, but the idea that you could really make anything into a speaker, and beyond that you could really make anything into anything.’’(Wegener) 23
Today recycling has gained recognition as a beneficial practice for our environment but it can also help our economy greatly. Recycling can save us energy but also provides a myriad of business opportunities for companies that are committed to sustainability. Sustainability is defined by dictionary.com as, “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources and thereby supporting long term ecological balance.” Trash Amps is one such company. Co-founder Adam Wegener states, “I think wherever Trash Amps goes sustainability should be a part of it and I think the real power of Trash concept is that it’s not just a speaker in a soda can, but the idea that you could really make anything into a speaker, and beyond that you could really make anything into anything’’(Wegener). Trash Amps has built on this idea by also starting work on coffee cup, Chinese food box, and jam jar speakers. Sustainability, however, is not as simple as most people make it out to be. Trash Amps is currently looking into having their product manufactured in a factory in China instead of making them all in Adam’s house. This brings up an interesting controversy. While most people would denounce this decision as a complete departure from the company’s standards Adam and Ron argue that its actually the opposite. Recycling has given them a way to start their company and now it has helped them grow by showing them an aspect of sustainability to mass production in China. 24
Wegener explains, “So one of the examples is, for a lot of these parts we just bought a piece of acrylic. Thats not recycled. Now what they are going to do in China is injection mold those parts and we can actually request that they use recycled materials to make those parts”(Wegener). Because of recycling Trash Amps can justify the practice of making their product in China. Packaging is also hugely reduced because instead of shipping all the individual parts to the U.S. they only ship the finished product with one piece of packaging. Sustainability isn’t as simple as most people think it is but it can have huge benefits.
But what do the customers think about buying sustainable products and the fact that they may have to be made in China? Ron admits, “There’s a large stigma, like a negative stigma for getting your product made in China. If you tell them it’s an environmentally friendly product made in China arms get thrown up”(Sloat). However, he adds that they can overcome this with smart product design and sustainable manufacturing techniques. This stigma may not always be as much of an issue. With a younger generation of consumers, the “Made in China” sticker might not be as big a red flag as it is for most older consumers. When asked, Will Shearer, a Trash Amps customer and a freshman in high school, said he does not really consider the company’s message when he is buying a product unless it is clearly stated. He also said, “I don’t think people will think twice when it says made in China because when you look in your house at almost anything, it says made in China. So it shouldn’t affect their sales or their reputation”(Shearer). This shows that the younger generation who make up a large portion of Trash Amps consumers are accepting of the fact that to really grow and prosper a company will have to employ more affordable labor and that it can be achieved without tarnishing their reputation or conflicting with company morals. 26
Trash Amps however is not the only company that is helping protect the environment with their sustainable practices. The Great Lakes Brewing Company in Clevelandâ€™s historic district has worked on itâ€™s recycling program so much that it now has a cost-neutral waste program. This means that they do not lose any money through recycling waste because they make back the value of those items by recycling. They recycle all the normal waste that we typically think of like cardboard boxes and glass, but they take their program one step further. The brewery produces 3,000 tons of spent grain each year from the brewing process, but instead of throwing it out, they sell it to the local farms as feed for the cows and chickens that appear on the menu in the brewery. It is also used for organic soil and compost for the two farms that the brewery runs. In addition, the brewery also runs a shuttle to take passengers to Cavaliers and Indians games when they are paying at home. But instead of using gasoline to power the shuttle the brewery uses filtered vegetable oil which is a byproduct of the brewing process. This business is a great example of how recycling can benefit the environment as well as profits and business growth.
Conclusion: “Take office paper, for example. Recycling 1 ton of it is 43 percent less energy intensive than starting from scratch...”(Leigh1). In economic times like these how can we afford not to recycle? It is cheaper and more earth friendly and it provides new business opportunities for small businesses. It may not seem to be worth the effort to sort your garbage into recyclables and regular trash or walk to the other side of the quad to recycle your water bottle, but please continue to do so because collectively we can make a huge difference in the future our world. Landfills continue to destroy our environment and it is our responsibility to keep as much waste out of them as possible, whether it is by recycling or businesses like Trash Amps. We cannot all start sustainable companies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our part. There are a few simple acts we can all perform to be more environmentally conscious. 28
First of all check your city recycling standards to see what items you can recycle. Second, use reusable grocery bags and third donâ€™t buy cases of plastic water bottles. This can help eliminate plastics from landfills that take much longer than other trash to decompose. If everyone does their part, we can begin to clean up our planet for future generations.
Works Cited Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003. Print. Landes, Lynn. Zero Waste America. Zero Waste America, n.d. Web. 08 March 13 Leigh, Elizah. Effects of Recycling on Humans. Demand Media. n.d. Web. 12 February 2013. Hutchinson, Alex. Is Recycling Worth It? PM Investigates its Environmental and Economic Impact. Popular Mechanics. 13 November 2008 Web. 03 February 2013. Filling Our Landfills. Eco Evaluator. n.d. Web. 12 February 2013. Recycling Facts & Statistics Infographic. Harmony Enterprises Inc. 02 February 2012. Web. 02 February 2013. Recycling Makes Dollars and Sense. CNN. 20 December 1999. Web. 07 February 2013. Richmond, Rachel Breet. Action Needed: The Case for Recycling. Natural News. 01 August 2009. Web.01 February 2013. Richtel, Matt. Galbraith, Kate. Back at Junk Value, Recyclables Are Piling Up. New York Times. 7 December 2008. Web. 03 February 2013. Dictionary.com. Random House Dictionary. n.d. 20 March 2013 Guy, Sandra. â€œFrom Industrial Waste To Creative Recycling.â€? SWE Magazine 57.3 (2011): 28. Science Reference Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. Wegener, Adam. Personal Interview. 03 March 2013. Sloat, Ron. Personal Interview. 10 March 2013. Shearer, William. Personal Interview. 17 March 2013. 30