Spencer Brown was horrified when he moved his office five years ago. "I spent $800 on boxes and packing materials," he says. "And once I moved, most of those boxes had to be thrown out." He tried to give them away, but many were unusable. He tried to recycle them, but the recycling place near his home wouldn't accept them. "I ended up driving to a landfill, and when I got there, I saw 40-foot-high piles of cardboard and thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not alone.'"
As a product designer, Brown, 41, had the skills to come up with a solution. "At the landfill, I also saw plastic bottles like those used to hold dishwashing liquid, and I thought, 'Why don't I take this plastic trash and turn it into moving boxes?'" Nine months later, he launched Rent A Green Box. He used blue, yellow, white and clear bottles to create reusable plastic boxes and started charging customers $1 per box, per week to rent them. He's since expanded his business to include boxes of various sizes, as well as a service that helps customers determine their box needs when they move.
Brown says that for every 100 boxes he rents, he extracts more than 500 pounds of trash from a landfill to create them, prevents more than 350 pounds of cardboard and packing materials from entering the landfill, and saves more than 350 gallons of water that would have been used to create the cardboard. In addition, the boxes are delivered in vehicles that run on biofuel and vegetable oil. And the boxes are significantly more durable than he had originally anticipated. When he first designed them, he thought they'd last 100 deliveries. He now has boxes that have been used more than 700 times.
Rent A Green Box expects to bring in more than $3 million in sales this year. And while Brown has past experience designing products ranging from medical devices to bag tags, he hopes to focus on green boxes for many years to come. "I love the fact that I'm solving a problem that's so much bigger than me," he says. "It's not like a widget or a crafty, helpful tool. This is a major shift. I'm the guy who went into the trash four years ago and people said I was nuts. But what's crazier: me buying plastic trash to make a better product or someone cutting down trees to fill up landfills?"
JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.