If you know me at all, you know that starting my own recycling company has been a long, exciting climb uphill. Well, this last month I got to tell my story in the company of several other entrepreneurs, designers and artists in SCREE Magazine. I’ve posted the article below with their permission, but if you get the chance, you should go to their Web site and check it out. It’s a gorgeous issue. (There’s even an article by Johnny Depp’s jeweler for “The Lone Ranger” in there!)
A Girl and Her Hydraulic Lifter Trash Truck: A Love Story
By Bridget Johnson
Excerpted from SCREE Magazine, Page 22
When I was a kid, my dad always told me that if I did something in life that I loved, I would make money at it. What my dad may not have realized at the time is that this advice would one day lead me to drive a trash truck.
I’m a recycler, and pretty much always have been. When people ask me how long I’ve been called the “Green Girl”, I smile and tell them that I’ve been called that most of my life.
I grew up on a farm in upstate New York where people recycled everything from nails to scrap metal. Realizing that I could make a little money, I would collect those things from people and turn them in to the redemption center for the payout. It took a little while, but it’s how I bought my first bike.
After that, I kept going. In college, I would go through the boys’ dorms and collect soda and beer cans so that I could afford to go away for Spring Break. When I moved to the mountains after that, I hauled the recycling after the parties my housemates and I would throw. I was driven by the thought that if I didn’t step up, all of those resources would go into a landfill somewhere. I would collect truckloads of cans and plastic bottles and piles of paper and take them somewhere I knew they would be broken down and reused. It got under my skin. I loved the thought that I could make a difference in our world, however small. It was an exhilarating feeling, and completely addicting.
It wasn’t until I started picking up the recycling in my mountain neighborhood that I seriously considered turning my recycling habit into a business. I had been to business school and kept thinking that I would do something in the environmental field, not realizing that it was staring me in the face. I had a strong background in sales. Maybe I would do environmental sales? I thought back to my dad’s advice over and again. What did I love? What did I love?
Blissfully ignorant, I asked my neighbors for nothing more than some gas money to help me drive the materials down the mountain to EcoCyle down in Boulder. Feeling guilty that I was dumping such large loads of recycling into the bins, I would wait for the cover of night to make my deposits, hoping desperately the whole time that no one would catch me at it.
Until, of course, they caught me at it.
I was trying to act natural while dumping an obscenely large load that was crammed so hard into my Jeep that I had to actually climb into the back to dislodge the bags from one another when the owner of EcoCycle, Eric Lombardi, walked up to me. I gave him a busted smile.
“You do know that we will pay you for that?” he said.
I stared at him. Blinked. And then it was on.
I wrote a business plan and Green Girl Recycling was a go. The Jeep acquired a trailer. The trailer turned into a 1978 Ford. The Ford turned into an ’84 Chevy, and the Chevy turned into a couple of diesels. The diesels gave way to box trucks, and kept going all the way up the line to the hydraulic lifter trash truck.
My trash truck.
All along the way, my husband Matt and I pushed and struggled. Trucks need constant maintenance, so there was always something that needed replaced whether it be tires, an alternator, or a timing belt. Matt and I both spent many hours under that Ford on the side of the road. During this time, we barely were able to make ends meet with what we were bringing in. Even so, we bootstrapped through, with him picking up jobs on the side like painting houses or both of us working ski patrol on weekends. Each new customer meant another bill we could pay. It took three long years for all of them to be covered.
At one point, I was offered angel investment. A man I knew offered up to $100K to help us with our trucks and to get us on our feet. It was a generous gesture, but the thought made me panic. I knew that for some relief then, I would have to pay him forever. It was too much. I couldn’t do it.
Because of the Eco Hero Award I won in 2010, as well as the Mercury 100 Fastest Growing Company listing we received, I sometimes get people calling me to ask if I can give them any advice on how to start a recycling company. It’s flattering, but I often don’t know what to tell people. If they would have seen me 14 years ago, they never would have called me. They would be going the other direction.
It was so hard at the beginning. But hard doesn’t scare me and poor doesn’t scare me. Doing something I hate, that I don’t believe in, scares me. Working for myself is in my DNA. Being stuck in a dead-end assembly job that I was handcuffed to…that is my worst fear.
So yes, I drive a trash truck. I realize this may not sound like the cushiest job in the universe, but the truth is, I like it. Why? Because it’s mine. And I love it.