by Tyler Tawahongva, Owner and Operator, Cloud Nine Recycling & Native American Business Incubator Network client
I’m a member of the Hopi tribe. I belong to the Coyote Clan. I’ve been recycling in my hometown of Tuba City and in surrounding Hopi communities for four years, since returning from Phoenix and founding Cloud Nine Recycling. There is no curbside recycling on the reservation—but the appetite for recycling is here. People want to recycle, it’s just a matter of making recycling accessible. If I can get a Cloud Nine Recycling truck, I could be a bigger part of making that happen.
Every week, I go to the transfer station in Tuba City—the transit point for waste en route to the landfill in Flagstaff. There’s a 40-foot container for recycling there and it’s almost always overflowing. Whatever doesn’t fit goes straight to the landfill. So I climb in there and haul things out—cardboard, plastic bottles, old vacuums, anything that can be harvested. A few weeks ago we harvested a piano—there’s a lot of metal in a piano. Sometimes I find things that can be salvaged. Just recently I pulled an antique reel-to-reel from the dumpster. I’m hoping I can get it going again. You learn a lot about how to fix things by taking them apart for metal.
It’s not glamorous work. But it’s important. And it’s rewarding. And I’m working on making a living off of it.
The Tuba City Chapter pays to haul about two tons of recyclable items by container roughly once a week. I take about a ton of cardboard out per week, which saves the chapter a lot of money.
The Cloud Nine Recycling logo depicts a Hopi cloud with rain falling underneath. Cloud is my Hopi name, given at birth. According to Hopi legend, upon emergence into the Fourth World, the Hopi people were told by Massau, caretaker of the land, to be stewards of the land. Stewardship is the driving principal behind my recycling work.
I don’t have any fancy equipment. I’ve set up gaylords—big cardboard receptacles—at the local food bank, and I empty them every week. I collect recycling from the hospital, a school, local businesses, and the transfer station—all for free. I gather and recycle material that would otherwise go to the landfill in Flagstaff. In 2014, Cloud Nine recycled twenty tons of cardboard and paper products, all baled, loaded, and hauled by hand. There are bigger operations in Tuba City, but they charge businesses to haul away their recycling.
Cloud Nine transports the material we collect to recycling centers in Phoenix, 220 miles away. This is currently our only source of revenue. I contribute to the local economy in Flagstaff by renting trucks to make recycling runs (this means first driving 80 miles to rent the truck and 80 miles back to Tuba City to load it before making the run to Phoenix—over 600 miles when all is said and done). This eats into the profits, especially with the price of cardboard plunging from over $100 a ton last year to about $70 now.
Labor issues in the ports on the West Coast, and China’s economy slowing down have really hurt prices. Who would have thought that the economy in China would affect us here on the Hopi reservation? But it does. I’m trying to refocus on metals, which are less labor intensive and more profitable. Cloud Nine is now a registered LLC, which means we can enter into contracts, so I’d like to start charging a small fee for pick-up. Nothing big—I want recycling to be cost effective.
I’m hoping people will support me, a local guy, rather than a big corporation, especially if I cost less.
The big hurdle now is figuring out how to operate on that large scale and transporting the materials to the recycling center.
The Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN) has given me access to the expertise I need to take my business to the next level, from setting up accounting practices to tracking expenses and collecting the data I need to figure out the right balance of cardboard and metals and other recyclables to make my runs to the recycling center profitable. Cloud Nine even has a website now. NABIN helped me develop a business plan and apply for the Green Business in Indian Country Start-Up Award, which Cloud Nine won in 2014. The award is given by Trees, Water and People (TWP), an organization out of Ft. Collins, Colorado. TWP has helped me a lot, including setting up a fundraising campaign to get my business organized. In doing all this it has become clear that without a moving truck to transport the materials, I’m never going to do much more than break even.
In June, Trees, Water, People and NABIN are going to help me launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $5,000 I need to buy a used 13-foot moving truck. With my own moving truck, I could load as I go, be more responsive to the market, and hopefully make enough money to survive, to support myself and my family, and avoid depending on rentals, whose prices and availability fluctuate. I hire community members to help me sort when I can afford to, and I’d like to be able to do that more—people need jobs and recycling is a job that helps the community and the environment.
I’m working all the time to help increase awareness and interest in recycling in the communities I work in. Businesses and organizations in Tuba City that actively participate in recycling include: the Moenkopi Legacy Inn, St. Jude Food Bank, Eagle’s Nest Elementary School and Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation.
The average American generates 4.3 tons of trash per year. With 188,000 people on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, that’s over 808,400 tons of waste per year.
Thirty-five percent of that is paper. Cloud Nine is putting a very small dent in that number. With a Cloud Nine moving truck, I could put a larger one and maybe, with the added profits, hire some people to help make an even more substantial dent.
If I show that recycling can be profitable, maybe others across the rez will be inspired to launch similar start-ups. I hope I can share my experience combing transfer stations for recycling waste with others—I’m pretty good at taking things apart by now, and I know what’s marketable and what’s not. I’d like to share strategies for maximizing the impact one person can have in contributing to the recycling efforts of the community. Ultimately, I'd like to expand Cloud Nine's operations to other reservation towns like Dilcon and Kayenta [Navajo Nation], and become a leader in recycling across the Hopi and Navajo reservations. The next step is the Cloud Nine truck. If you’d like to pitch in, your contribution would be most appreciated. Every little bit helps!
Cloud Nine works in and around Tuba City and will purchase aluminum cans and pick up electronics, metals, and other recyclable items. For more information and ways to help Cloud Nine Recycling take the business to the next level, please visit us at: http://www.cloudninerecycling.com/