Women in Recycling: ISRI 2019 Conference Highlights Challenges, Opportunities

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The progress of recycling and women’s leadership are tightly linked. New ideas are essential to transforming the industry’s 20th century model into more efficient digitally managed infrastructure for recovering and reusing materials in the United States. Women bring those ideas and new energy to recycling.

“It’s a hidden industry that many women would not consider, but they should,” said Nidi Turakhia, executive vice president of Allied Alloys during a panel discussion at the 2019 Institute for Recycling Industries Conference (ISRI) in Los Angeles. Several of the speakers took over a family recycling business from their fathers, which presented unique challenges, and one launched her scrap yard after running a hair salon. Their stories, however, included common themes.

ISRI put a focus on facilitating collaboration and networking among women in recycling when it introduced the ISRI Women’s Council in July 2018. Like all businesses, the mesh of peers supporting women as they develop their careers is integral to their progress.

Grit Versus Doubt

The story is familiar. Women face doubts that they could manage industrial operations, even among their family members. They often receive silence instead of feedback in meetings and when decisions are needed. Mentors are crucial to success, and women have relied on male mentors, especially their fathers in existing recycling businesses, and now are building networks of female advisors. Determination and grit are essential to their success in recycling because they must prove themselves over and over.

“The Proler women were not considered,” said Becky Proler, a third-generation recycling executive who, after gaining a degree in counseling psychology, now specializes in cast iron breaking and aluminum recovery at Southern Core Recycling in Houston. The barriers to Proler’s acceptance in the industry were high despite and because her grandfather invented the auto-shredder that established the modern scrap recycling business.

From left to right: Michelle Coffino, Nidi Turakhia, Becky Proler, Brandi Harleaux, and Judy Ferraro

She and two partners started the company in 1989, in the same market that her family had dominated for most the century. “[In the Proler family], you got married, and my brothers got jobs in the company.”

Bringing a variety of backgrounds to the recycling business proved a valuable advantage for all the panelists. Proler’s background in psychology prepared her to deal with people and bias.
Michelle (Mickey) Coffino, founded Queen City Metal Recycling and Salvage in 2013 after running a hair salon. Applying the incentive program she used at the salon, such as awarding employees with tickets to concerts, she has reduced her company’s attrition rate to a remarkably low one percent annually.

Brandi Harleaux, chief operating officer at South Post Oak Recycling Center in Houston, put the challenge bluntly: “If I can’t get through the front door, I will come in the back door and come out through the front.” Harleaux spent the first part of her career in banking and at the Walt Disney Company, then returned to her family business.

When asked if women should seek to enter recycling through the marketing department, Harleaux advised thinking outside traditional business roles. After attending business school because she did not find her family’s business very interesting, she found her understanding of commodities pricing reignited her passion for recycling.

“It’s not just hands-on scrap processing,” Harleaux said. Women can start in the yard, in the office, or any department of a recycling company.

A Growing Network

Nidi Turakhia credits her father, who was a finalist for the 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in the Houston area, for inspiring her career. However, she pointed to her fellow panelists and ISRI as pivotal influences.

“When we joined ISRI, it was informal but what the leader [of the chapter] did was walk me around and introduce me to everyone,” Turakhia said. “But don’t just find mentors, become one by offering internships to employees’ children.”

It is the willingness to provide help and advice, as well as the recognition of the value of employees that struck the most compelling chord among the audience at the event.
Proler’s networking includes inviting employees and partners to a snow cone fight to relieve the Houston heat. That type of outreach has carried Southern Core Recycling to become a leader in the region.

The path ahead for women in recycling is bright. As the network of women in the industry widens, and innovation places their companies at the forefront of recycling, there will be new opportunities for female entrepreneurs, executives, and workers. In the U.K., Susie Burrage was recently elected as the first woman chair of the British Metals Recycling Association, the 100-year-old industry organization that lobbies on behalf of recyclers.

“I’ve believed I could do it,” Burrage said from the audience. “And I’ve done it.”

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Mitch Ratcliffe

Publisher at Earth911.com
Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their buying decisions on the planet.