Today’s MI Environment story is courtesy of the recycling raccoons.
PONTIAC — Ever since they first met in a church, and as they laughingly admitted, falling in love instantly, Damany Head and Shanell Weatherspoon came together arguably a perfect match.
Damany Head and Shanell Weatherspoon of Essential Recycling in Pontiac.
So it’s no surprise that their love of the environment and the successful minority-owned recycling company they co-founded together continue to fuel their romance.
But the dynamic duo that created Essential Recycling at Pontiac isn’t content with expanding recycling opportunities in the commercial sectors of Southeast Michigan by educating the construction and skilled trades industries on the value of returning materials beyond metal to the chain. supply for reuse as new products.
They are also improving the lives of black youth in the Detroit metro area by introducing high school seniors to possible careers in the recycling industry.
‘Recycling is essential’
Essential Recycling contracts with HVAC dealers, contractors, scrap dealers, and property management companies to capture refrigerant, scrap metal, cardboard, wood pallets, and other materials for recycling in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.
“We’ve pretty clearly defined our niche in the industry based on our belief that recycling is essential to building better communities,” said Head, who has a BS in mechanical engineering from Ohio Northern University and worked as an engineer for General Motors. at Pontiac before he and Weatherspoon founded their company in 2008.
“Small business owners, especially in the HVAC market, don’t necessarily have enough labor resources to take care of the back-end of their businesses,” Head said.
“We provide them with a unique solution to recycle their materials, saving them and their employees a significant amount of time and giving it back to communities by improving the environment so it doesn’t end up in a landfill,” added Head, who he serves on the board of directors of the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce.
New life for old HVAC units
Essential Recycling teams began collecting recyclable material from HVAC contractors and distributors in 2009.
Many HVAC parts can be recycled. Recyclable components include coils, motors, sheet metal, compressors, cardboard boxes, wood and plastic pallets, furnaces, copper tubing, brass fittings, and metal conduit.
It is illegal to leave old residential or commercial HVAC systems in the trash because they contain chemicals that can harm the environment. Leftover refrigerant, for example, can deplete the ozone layer if allowed to evaporate. When installing a new system, HVAC contractors will not only remove old equipment, but also move it out of homes and workplaces.
All HVAC system materials must be separated and sorted before going to individual containers for recycling and/or transport to recycling centers. That’s an arduous task that represents wasted time and energy on the part of qualified HVAC installers who could better spend their time serving more customers.
That’s why environmentally conscious HVAC companies turn to Essential Recycling to take over, explained Weatherspoon, who has a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and an master’s degree from the University of Michigan-Flint and has worked for General Motors since 2000 until 2019 before assuming more responsibilities in the family business.
“Our goal is to recycle or dispose of these items with the planet in mind,” Weatherspoon said, adding that she experienced an environmental “awakening” when she was pregnant in 2008 with the first of the couple’s three children while living in Pontiac. . .
“I looked around my community and I didn’t see a lot of people recycling and that made me think about what we could do to save the planet for our son,” she said. “Damany and I started having conversations about our obligation to the earth, and that sparked our passion for recycling and sustainability.”
Metro Detroit, Michigan’s most densely populated region, has nearly 2 million single-family homes and condominiums. With the HVAC industry set to grow by approximately 6% over the next few years, Essential Recycling is poised to support an industry that lacks a strong and diverse workforce.
“Damany and Shanell are rising stars in the recycling world,” said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), who is coordinating the state’s effort to ensure have the materials put on the sidewalk. break into new products made in Michigan.
“They are bringing the necessary knowledge, experience and perspective to help Michigan reach new heights,” Flechter said.
“They also know that the growth of a diverse workforce is helping create job opportunities from HVAC waste that was once buried in the ground but is now, because of their labor, creating value in Michigan’s economy.” .
Promoting the diversity of the recycling workforce
Achieving diversity in the waste and recycling industry is no easy task.
the most accurate available data of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which covers the broader category of “waste management and remedial services,” estimates that 81% of the general workforce is male and nearly 74% of executives or managers senior are white males. This compares to 52% and 59%, respectively, in the entire US private sector workforce. based on EEOC data.
The lack of diversity is not lost on the founders of Essential Recycling.
They have partnered with the Pontiac United Education Coalition, Oakland County Michigan Works! Pontiac, Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, Pontiac Chamber, and the Talent Development Coalition in Pontiac will work in partnership with metro Detroit high schools to provide paid internships in retraining and provide training and soft skills development for adults to gain employment in the burgeoning field. of recycling. .
“Recycling creates jobs by keeping materials once considered waste circulating in the economy, and it is important to continue to grow these jobs in all communities, for all Michiganders,” said Othalene Lawrence, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Michigan. EGLE.
“Shanell and Damany are making a positive difference in the lives of the students they mentor by showing them that they and Michigan can prosper by actively working to reduce waste, save resources and protect the climate,” Lawrence said.
The Essential Recycling initiative is supported by a $135,000 EGLE grant. The drive to promote recycling education aligns with the objectives of the national EGLE award Know it before you throw it away awareness campaign on recycling with the Recycling Raccoons.
“As an African-American owned company, living and operating in a legacy city like Pontiac, we are trying to demonstrate the viability of participating in a fast-growing industry like recycling,” Head said.
“We have invested a great deal of time, money and resources in training and providing services to people of color over the last 10 years,” he added. “Environmental justice investment around recycling has been long lacking and people of color have not received equitable funding or technical assistance to build successful and scalable businesses that serve legacy cities.”
hope for the future
Dante Thomas, 21, a Pontiac native and 2019 West Bloomfield High School graduate, is an emerging Essential Recycling pioneer who credits Head for inspiring him to consider a career in recycling.
“Damany has been a very good role model for me and is helping me learn important key life skills,” said Thomas, who has worked for the company since 2020 as a recycling specialist transporting and sorting recyclables for HVAC companies. , medical facilities and multi-family housing complexes.
“It’s funny, because as a kid I was one of those kids who would throw everything away even though we had recycling bins at school and at home,” Thomas said. “But once you learn how to do it, it’s easy to recycle and you’re helping the planet. I really plan on staying at Essential for a while.”
The Talent Development Coalition has about 65 high school students from all over the Detroit metropolitan area seeking employment in skilled trades. Many are expressing interest in the recycling industry thanks to Head’s role as a mentor and business leader, according to Carlton Jones, program coordinator.
“Damany and Essential Recycling have been instrumental in supporting our effort to help people understand the hiring needs of the recycling industry,” Jones said.
“Most people, not just young people but also adults, don’t understand the opportunities that exist in the recycling profession,” he said. “Once we start educating them and they hear about all the exciting possibilities for Damany, you can see the light bulb go off and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that.'”