After discovering a need for customizable commercial waste and recycling services, Michelle Salas launched Lady Green Recycling in Miami in 2010. Since then, Salas has grown the business to service more than 1,000 locations in Miami, with two office locations and five customized pickup and box trucks.
“Michelle is someone who everyone should look up to because she has taken her passion to protect the environment and has developed it into successful recycling and waste management business Lady Green Recycling,” says Amy Thayer of Lady Green Recycling. “Her business provides customized recycling programs for businesses and schools that make recycling easy for clients and take the confusion out of what can and cannot be recycled. Her success is due primarily to the fact that she takes recycling education very seriously and has volunteered her time to educate schools, students, businesses and individuals on how to recycle right and how proper recycling and waste reduction efforts can reduce their carbon footprint.”
Waste360 recently chatted with Salas, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, about how she came up with the concept for Lady Green Recycling, how she stays motivated and how Lady Green maintains a low contamination rate.
Waste360: How did you come up with the concept for Lady Green Recycling?
Michelle Salas: It all really began in 2008, when I was working in real estate and going to school. I had always wanted to start a business, and when I was at work, I noticed that a lot of companies were not recycling as they should. That made me start thinking about starting a recycling business, and I started taking some classes that were focused on sustainability.
In one of my classes, which focused on the natural process of recycling and the circular economy, I had an ah-ha moment and realized that we mimic nature through recycling, which is both good for the environment and the economy.
I knew that I wanted to make a difference, so in 2010, I moved forward with my idea for Lady Green Recycling. When the company first launched, I had the support of some of my classmates who believed in me and my company. Without them, I don’t know if I would have had enough courage to start a business with very little resources. I actually had three jobs at one point while trying to get the company up and running. I do not have a waste industry background, so getting things started was very tough for me, but I knew it could be done.
In 2012, I was finally able to quit my full-time job to focus entirely on the company, which offers customizable waste and recycling services using the pay-as-you-throw/recycle model.
At first, I worked full time in the field to train myself and my team members. I knew I had to learn the actual business of waste and recycling, and the only way to do that was to get my hands dirty. To this day, I still make an effort to go out in the field and work alongside our technicians, drivers and other team members. I have seen the tremendous benefits and added value in our overall performance when working close and alongside your operations team.
I am proud to say that Lady Green Recycling has grown a lot over the years, and we now service more than 1,000 locations in Miami, have two office locations and have five customized pickup and box trucks.
Waste360: As president of Lady Green Recycling, what are some of your responsibilities?
Michelle Salas: In the beginning, I would always say I am the president, but I was really the accountant, the marketer, you name it. I was doing everything.
As we began growing, I started focusing more on ensuring the business was doing well and that we were offering excellent customer service. I wasn’t really interested in taking on new clients and growing quickly right away because it was important to me that we were offering the best possible services we could to our existing customers. Now that we are in a good place with that, I am more willing to take on new customers and run the actual business side of things.
One important thing to note is that Lady Green Recycling is a small company, so I am the one leading the safety efforts opposed to having an actual safety director. Safety is very important to me, and I make sure to work closely with all my employees to ensure they are safe on the job.
Insurance is a very high cost for me, and I am happy to say that our safety efforts are strong, and we have not yet had an accident or injury. I am sure it’s something that will unfortunately happen in the future, but I am doing my best to make sure my staff and customers are safe.
Waste360: How do you stay motivated in your role and what goals are you hoping to accomplish this year?
Michelle Salas: For me personally, I always go back to meditating or praying when I need some guidance or motivation during a challenging time. Having a spiritual mindset and a positive outlook helps me see the positive in difficult situations.
When the China ban went into effect, for example, it motivated me to be aware and ready for any changes that may happen to the recycling markets and my business. Thankfully, it hasn’t really impacted me much because our recycling streams are different than other big companies’ streams, and we take our materials to vendors.
Although I haven’t really been impacted by China’s ban, I feel like there are a lot of things that need to be changed in the recycling and manufacturing sectors. There are some complex materials out there that are hard to recycle, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what can and cannot be recycled. By working together and educating the public, we can overcome some of those issues.
The whole transition within the recycling industry is very exciting to me because I see the opportunities that are there. Companies are going to be forced to make some changes, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Waste360: Lady Green has a multi-stream recycling system and a near 1 percent contamination rate. What are some of the best practices you follow to maintain that low contamination rate?
Michelle Salas: We have an effective and convenient system in place, and we are working with people who actually care about recycling.
While our customers sort their recyclables and do a good job about keeping contamination at the minimum, contamination does become a problem at times. When it does happen, we send out photos and reports showing what contaminated the bin. This helps our customers have a clear understanding about what they did wrong to avoid the problem from happening again.
I also have found that you need to make it convenient for customers to recycle. While we have a multi-stream system, bottles and cans are put in a bin together and mixed paper is commingled in a bin together. Also, landfill bins are placed next to the recycling bins in order to deter contamination.
To ensure our customers understand our system, we spend time with them at their properties to educate staff and answer any questions they may have. In addition, we actually go into the businesses or schools and pick up the bins wherever they are located—our customers don’t have to put bins in a specific area for us to pick them up and empty them.
In an effort to make things even easier for our customers, we will be launching a mobile app sometime this fall. With the app, customers will be able to request pickups, view metrics and ‘play’ an interactive game that actually trains them on proper recycling. I am very excited about the upcoming launch, which will not only be accessible to our clients but to the public as well.
Waste360: You mentioned you often take the time to educate schools, businesses and individuals about the proper way to recycle. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Michelle Salas: Yes, we actually go visit our customers and do an evaluation of their waste stream. If they have a recycling program already in place, we look at how it’s structured and what changes need to be made. If there isn’t a recycling program in place, we then identify some program ideas that may work well for them.
Waste360: You’re soon publishing a children’s book called “The Lady Green Club.” Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Michelle Salas: The book is part fiction and part nonfiction, and it’s about a girl who wants to start a recycling club.
The book combines my passion for the environment and animals, and the name Lady Green Recycling is actually inspired by my dog Lady. The characters in the book relate to me personally, and I have begun using them in some of our educational tools for children.
The goal for the book is to have a positive impact on future generations and for children to change their outlook on how they view waste. Currently, I feel like we’re so disconnected from waste, but through storytelling, I hope to help fix that disconnect. I also hope to inspire children to go after their dreams by relaying the message that anything is possible if you truly believe and work at it.
Waste360: In addition to launching the book, Lady Green Recycling recently joined a strategic partnership with Recy Master Corp., a local plastic recycling processing facility from Ecuador. Can you tell us about that partnership?
Michelle Salas: Yes, Recy Master Corp. has been recycling and processing PET and other plastic grades for more than 20 years in Ecuador and recently started operations here in Miami. We have some exciting projects that we’re working on right now to drive the plastic recycling market locally. I think this will be a game changer for the company and our community.
This has been a vision of mine for several years, and I’m really excited that it’s happening right now because we have the momentum and true interest from the public to do something about this serious global plastic waste problem.
I think the best way to do this is by capturing the plastic in a separate stream, and in some cases, buying the plastic from consumers. The collection has always been the challenge.
Waste360: How do you spend your free time?
Michelle Salas: I love training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and going to the gym. I train and compete a lot, and I actually competed at the Las Vegas Convention Center last year at a world tournament. I lost my second fight that year, but I managed to win a world championship in 2017. It was a great and unforgettable experience.
I also love spending time with my two dogs, parrots and my family and getting outside to enjoy nature whenever I can.