When Preserve founder Eric Hudson was meeting with plastics manufacturers back in the mid-'90s to make the first toothbrush for his new company, he would start by talking about how it would encourage better brushing.
Specifically, Hudson would walk would-be manufacturers through the unique forward-angle design, which he created with the help of his dad, a former car and boat designer.
It wasn't until the third or fourth meeting, when he thought he might have them sold on the idea, that Hudson would tell them what really made his brushes special.
Hudson didn't want to make the brushes out of new plastic, which is easy to work with. He wanted to use recycled plastics -- and not just any plastic, but No. 5 polypropylene, the stuff yogurt cups and bottle tops are made out of. At the time, most of it was ending up in landfills.
Out of that trash, Preserve would come to produce an entirely different creation.
Chapter 1: Redefining Sustainability
Hudson's reluctance to mention his vision upfront may seem strange now, but in the mid-1990s recycling was just gaining a foothold across America. While cities had begun collecting plastic, there were very few useful products being made from it, and none were being made from No. 5 polypropylene.
Hudson was neither a plastics expert nor an environmental crusader. But the Massachusetts native and former Fidelity securities trader was fresh out of Babson College, where he'd picked up an MBA and nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit. His grandparents were the founders of Brookstone, and his father was an industrial engineer. After years of trading stock, he longed to create something real. Now he just needed a product.
He'd always cared about the environment, and after reading a news story about the Fresh Kills Landfill on New York's Staten Island -- which was turning away trash barges because it was bursting at the seams with garbage -- an idea started taking shape.
"I remember reading about this and going, 'We're really running out of landfill space,' " Hudson says. "We really need to take on this recycling challenge and say, 'We've got to start converting this stuff into useful products made in the United States of America.' "
Speaking of useful products, Hudson had long been kicking around an idea for a backward-sloping toothbrush or idea for a reverse-angle toothbrush -- one that would allow him to brush as his dentist had always instructed. He worked with plastics and dental experts on the design, and a few months after submitting plans to the Food and Drug Administration, he was given the green light. Now he just needed a manufacturer.
Recycled plastics don't always melt and blend as neatly as virgin materials, so they can be hard to work with. Hudson eventually found a company in Tennessee willing to take up the challenge.
Does it make sense to launch a product everybody uses, and that everybody uses in their mouth, made from recycled materials?
"Does it make sense to launch a product everybody uses, and that everybody uses in their mouth, made from recycled materials?" Hudson remembers asking himself. "Is this OK?"
Two decades later, the answer is yes.
Preserve is now a well-established company with 13 employees, a massive supply chain, and four manufacturing partners making not just toothbrushes, but also razors, reusable tableware -- including plates, cups, and cutlery -- and kitchenware items like colanders and food-storage containers.
Hudson no longer downplays the environmental angle. He puts it right on the company's packaging: "Made with love and recycled yogurt cups."
Chapter 2: All-American Pride
Behind Preserve's simple idea -- making new stuff out of old stuff -- there's an extremely complex supply chain. Li Terry keeps it all running.
Born and raised in China, Terry moved to America at 18 to attend college. She earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in business management from the University of California at San Diego.
Her roommate during graduate school was "very big on sustainability," Terry says. "Two years of that kind of environment gave me a new perspective."
But getting a job in 2008 wasn't easy, especially if you wanted one where you were going to make a difference. After working for a brand management agency in Vermont for two years, she decided it was time to find a job that was about more than making money.
Terry joined Preserve in 2011 and worked her way up from project manager to supply chain manager. One of her main duties is overseeing the company's "Gimme 5" program, which encourages its consumers -- referred to as "Preservers" -- to recycle their plastic and help make the very products they buy.
Preserve has installed Gimme 5 drop-off boxes at Whole Foods Market (WFM) stores across the country, and it's up to Terry to make sure the trash dumped in those 300-plus bins end up making Preserve toothbrushes and razors.
From those bins, the plastic winds up at Whole Foods' regional distribution centers, where it's loaded onto trucks and driven to a sorter in Minnesota. From there, the plastic goes to California, where it's ground down, reprocessed and washed.
Terry then has it shipped to Aaron Industries in Leominster, Mass. The folks at Aaron grind the plastic into tiny pellets, which then go to Preserve's manufacturing partners. Toothbrushes are made in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while razors are produced in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, not far from Preserve's headquarters in Waltham, a town considered by some as the birthplace of America's industrial revolution.
Moving plastic around the country may not seem environmentally sound, but through what it calls "Life Cycle Assessments," Preserve keeps close watch on the environmental impacts of its products. Compared to making goods with virgin plastics, Preserve's approach makes sense for the planet, and they've got numbers to prove it.. Even with the circuitous route the recyclables take, the company says it uses 46 percent less energy, 48 percent less coal, 54 percent less water and at least 75 percent less oil.
Chapter 3: 'Welcome to Leominster'
Hudson and his team have worked hard to keep Preserve products made in America -- and not only because staying close to home can reduce the company's environmental impact.
Hudson has always been driven by his father's profound belief in keeping manufacturing in the U.S. This has become increasingly important in recent decades, as many companies have moved their operations overseas.
So when Hudson and his team went searching for a plastics manufacturer to make a new line of reusable plastic products designed to last decades -- not days or months -- they chose to look in Leominster.
The town symbolizes what's happened to American manufacturing in the past 30 years.
Just 33 miles from Preserve's headquarters in Waltham, the town still advertises its proud plastics heritage with a billboard that reads: "Pioneer Plastics City."
But the sign has a kitschy, vintage look, and the further you drive down Mechanic Street, past dollar stores and iffy-looking Chinese restaurants, the more you realize the town and its manufacturing base have seen better days.
But David and Dino LaManna are still trying to make a go of it. The brothers set up shop as LaManna Precision in 1990. At first, they were toolmakers -- they made the machinery that churned out plastic goods. When they started, there were probably 100 tool shops in the area.
"There's probably five here now," David says.
After eight years, the brothers switched to molding plastic goods because most of the tool-making business had moved overseas in search of cheaper labor. LaManna Precision manufactures about a hundred different products and counts big companies like Home Depot (HD) among its clients. Then in January, Preserve came calling.
For Preserve, LaManna was a natural choice. The plant is located just around the corner from Aaron Industries, where Preserve gets its plastic, and Dave and Dino had reputations for being skilled craftsmen with lots of integrity.
The brothers also had experience working with recycled plastics. But they'd never helped to produce plastic quite as brightly colored and beautifully designed as the ones Preserve now rolls off the assembly line.
Hudson and his team don't simply want to make durable, long-lasting products. They want products like their lime green colanders to catch people's eye. Just because Preserve's goods are made from recycled plastic doesn't mean they have to look like garbage.
This isn't a common opinion. As David says, many of LaManna's clients are mom-and-pop shops that simply want to sell the cheapest mixing bowls on their blocks. They don't take pride in what the stuff looks like. Preserve does, and that makes a world of difference.
"We're starting to be competitive," David says. "We're not whistling by the graveyard. We're always cautious. We buy one piece of equipment at a time, and that's why were still around."
While Preserve has bet on Leominster, only time will tell whether the town will truly rebound and reclaim its former glory. But the LaManna brothers aren't going to give up easily, and while they're ultimately focused on staying afloat, they're glad to support Preserve's mission.
"We're happy to have the business," David says. "I think we can work for a long time to benefit each other. We're just hoping everything stays the way it is."
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