It began on a whim, an easy way for a young UCLA graduate to start a business.
Now, 12 years later, Aaron Lamstein's company, Worldwise Inc., sells consumer products made of recycled plastic in about 15,000 stores in North America, including many of the larger mass merchandisers.
But the work is not easy, Lamstein said during an interview at the National Hardware Show, held Aug. 11-13 in Chicago. Recycled-content housewares have a long way to go before consumers buy them purely for their environmental benefits, he said. The products must offer the same quality as their virgin-resin counterparts, he said.
Worldwise, based in San Rafael, Calif., attempted hundreds of products from a variety of recycled materials before settling on product lines that would sell. It took until 1994 before its first products were released commercially and another several years before large retailers put them on store shelves.
Now the company is expanding its line and making a more aggressive marketing push. Lamstein, Worldwise president and chief executive officer, stood in the aisles near his booth at the hardware show, shaking hands and rounding up interest in his lawn and garden line.
``The first 12 years of business, we've had a tremendous amount of trial and error, trying a lot of different technologies and products,'' Lamstein said. ``We tried dog bowls from recycled plastics, and pest-control products. We knew we had the opportunity to develop a profitable business around environmental responsibility but we had to find the right products.''
Worldwise sticks to that mission with its outdoor line. It includes planters called TerraNotta (``It looks like terra cotta but it's notta!'') made entirely from recycled plastic and post-industrial rubber that makes it slightly soft. Lamstein hit a pot with a sledgehammer to demonstrate its ability to bounce back into shape.
The company touts surface savers - circular plastic disks under flowerpots that keep them from marring floors - made from 30 percent recycled ABS from personal computers. It sells fabric dog beds filled with plastic from recycled soft-drink bottles.
It offers plastic whiskey barrels and a line of flower pots, called DuraPlanter, made with post-industrial shrink wrap used to ship products.
The company uses a phalanx of manufacturers, both domestic and international, to make its products.
Its line has attracted attention from industry giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where Worldwise is one of six outside vendors on its environmental advisory board, Lamstein said.
Lamstein had not planned to become an environmental business activist.
He graduated from UCLA in 1989 and was looking for a job with an investment firm. But Lamstein's path changed after he was approached by Phil Genet, who had served as a Big Brother to Lamstein while growing up.
Genet, a manufacturers' representative, had an idea after listening to his children discussing the environment.
``To a lot of younger people, environmental responsibility is going to be an everyday occurrence,'' Lamstein said. ``Each day, we have millions of children educated about the environment and recycling.''
In California, where Lamstein is based, the environment might be more of a concern than in other parts of the country. At the hardware show, few other lawn-and-garden exhibitors extolled environmental benefits of their products.
But some activity did appear. Euracast, a company making polyurethane outdoor pots and planters, uses water-based blowing agents instead of chemicals to protect the ozone level, according to Deland Wylie, general manager of the firm in Montgomery, Ala.
The 52-year-old company, owned by Caffco International Inc., has found more interest from consumers in protecting the environment, Wylie said.
``It seems to be a bit of a selling point,'' he said.