PONTIAC — Since they met for the first time at a church — and as they laughingly admit were instantly “smitten” — you could say the union of Damany Head and Shanell Weatherspoon was a match made in heaven.
So it’s no surprise that their love for the environment and running the successful minority-owned recycling company they co-founded together continues to fuel their romance.
But the dynamic duo who created Essential Recycling in Pontiac isn’t content to expand recycling opportunities in commercial sectors of Southeast Michigan by educating the construction and skilled trades industries on the value of returning materials beyond metal to the supply chain for reuse as new products.
They’re also improving the lives of metro Detroit’s Black youth by introducing graduating high school seniors to potential careers in the recycling industry.
‘Recycling Is Essential‘
Essential Recycling contracts with HVAC distributors, contractors, scrappers 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 defined pretty clearly our niche in the industry based on our belief that recycling is essential to building better communities,” said Head, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio Northern University and worked as an engineer for General Motors in Pontiac before he and Weatherspoon started their firm 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, which saves them and their employees a significant amount of time and gives back to communities by improving the environment so it doesn’t go to a landfill,” added Head, who serves on the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
New Life for Old HVAC Units
Essential Recycling crews began collecting recyclable material from heating, ventilation and air conditioning 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 ductwork.
It’s 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, responsible heating and air conditioning contractors will not only remove the old equipment but also haul it away from homes and workplaces.
All HVAC system materials require separating and sorting before going into individual bins for recycling and/or transporting to recycling centers. That’s a painstaking chore which represents unproductive time and energy by skilled HVAC installers who could better spend their time in service to more clients.
That’s why environmentally friendly HVAC companies reach out to Essential Recycling to take over, explained Weatherspoon, who has a bachelor’s from Michigan State University and a master’s from the University of Michigan-Flint and who worked for General Motors from 2000 until 2019 before taking on more responsibilities at the family business.
“Our goal is to recycle or dispose these items with the planet in mind,” said Weatherspoon, adding that she experienced an “awakening” about protecting the environment 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 did not see a lot of people recycling and that got me thinking about what we could do to save the planet for our child,” 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, the most densely packed region of Michigan, has almost 2 million single-family homes and condominiums. With the HVAC sector slated to grow an estimated 6% over the next few years, Essential Recycling is poised to support an industry that is lacking a strong and diverse workforce pipeline.
“Damany and Shanell are rising stars in the recycling world,” said Matt Flechter, a recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), who coordinates the state’s effort to ensure materials put at the curb make their way into new products made in Michigan.
“They are bringing the knowledge, experience and perspective necessary to help Michigan reach new heights,” Flechter said.
“They also know that growing a diverse workforce is helping to create job opportunities from HVAC wastes that once were buried in the ground but now, because of their work, are creating value in Michigan’s economy.”
Promoting Recycling Workforce Diversity
Achieving diversity in the waste and recycling industry is no easy task.
The most precise data available from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which covers the broader “waste management and remediation services” category — estimates 81% of the overall workforce is male and nearly 74% of executives or senior managers are white males. This compares with 52% and 59%, respectively, across the U.S. private sector workforce based on EEOC data.
The lack of diversity isn’t lost on the founders of Essential Recycling.
They’ve teamed with the Pontiac United Education Coalition, Oakland County Michigan Works! Pontiac, Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, the Pontiac Chamber and the Talent Development Coalition in Pontiac to work collaboratively with metro Detroit high schools to provide paid internships in recycling and to provide training and soft skills development for adults to obtain employment in the burgeoning recycling field.
“Recycling creates jobs by keeping materials once thought of as waste circulating in the economy, and it’s important to continue to grow these jobs in all communities, for all Michigan residents,” said Othalene Lawrence, EGLE’s Equity and Inclusion Officer.
“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 with a $135,000 EGLE grant. The push to promote recycling education aligns with the goals of EGLE’s national award-winning Know It Before You Throw It recycling awareness campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoons.
“As a Black-owned company, living and operating in a legacy city like Pontiac, we are attempting to demonstrate the viability of participating in an accelerating growth industry such as recycling,” Head said.
“We have invested a tremendous amount of time, money and resources into training and providing services to people of color over the last 10 years,” he added. “The investment in environmental justice around recycling has long been missing and people of color have not received equitable funding or technical assistance to build successful, scalable businesses that serve legacy cities.”
Hope for the Future
Dante Thomas, 21, a Pontiac native and 2019 graduate of West Bloomfield High School, is an emerging Essential Recycling trailblazer 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 major key skills for life,” said Thomas, who has worked for the company since 2020 as a recycling specialist hauling and separating recyclable materials from HVAC companies, medical facilities and multifamily housing complexes.
“It’s funny, because growing up I was one of those kids who threw everything away even though we had recycling bins at school and at home,” Thomas said. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to recycle and you’re helping the planet. I really plan on staying for a while at Essential.”
The Talent Development Coalition has about 65 high school students from across metro Detroit who are pursuing 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, a 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 begin to educate them and they hear about all the exciting possibilities from Damany, you can see that lightbulb come on and they say, ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that.’”