How Michelle Salas & her team push Miami to deal with waste more responsibly
Around Miami, Michelle Salas is known as Lady Green. In 2008, she noticed that a lot of local companies were not properly dealing with trash. Michelle decided it was time to create one that does. Two years later, she launched Lady Green Recycling, which designs & customizes recycling programs for businesses and schools.
Michelle knew the road to succeeding as a social entrepreneur would be tough. She had to work three jobs to sustain herself and build her company, but she persevered.
“Even though it's something you love to do, it's not always fun," she explained. "But in life and in business, you have to have grit and courage to get through tough moments."
Recycling systems in the US, and South Florida particularly, have failed to combat the massive problem we’re facing.
Nearly 92% of the world’s resources are used only once. Over 2 billion tons of trash are generated each year globally -- far beyond what can be appropriately processed or recycled. At the current rate, the world is expected to generate a disquieting 3.4 billion metric tons of solid waste by 2050.
The United States used to ship ⅔ of its total recyclables to China until 2018. That’s when China banned the imports of waste because it was extremely contaminated and negatively impacted recycling and waste organizations worldwide. No other country agreed to serve as an alternative for the US.
“In a perfect world, we should build proper infrastructure to suit all markets, but we can’t wait for that. We must make change right now,” Michelle states.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, only 18% of Miami-Dade county’s waste is recycled. Michelle believes the low rate of recycling and high level of contamination is due to the single-stream system and lack of education. Other states, unlike Florida, use the multiple stream form of recycling, meaning that items such as paper and glass are separated prior to being collected.
There are 10 states that have bottle bills, when residents are paid for taking their recyclables to recycling centers. Major waste management companies typically don’t favor bottle bill schemes because it takes away recyclable material from their single-streams. Mitigating that would require a major change to their infrastructure. A bottle bill in Florida was rejected.
From 'Wishful' Recycling to Real Impact
Michelle believes the single-stream system used in South Florida is inefficient because it creates ‘wishful recycling’ leading to high rates of contamination.
“I want to show the community and the city that this is something that could be done. It could cause real recycling, lower contamination rates and people get an incentive for recycling. It's a win-win.”
With only a team of six people, Lady Green Recycling services over 1,000 locations from Homestead to North Miami. Michelle considers her team her biggest support group and is extremely grateful for their constant help in educating the local public on proper recycling methods.
When they begin work with a new client, the Lady Green Recycling team tailors a recycling program for their client’s needs & trains them in the process. Each client receives their own bins with QR codes on them. These QR codes allow clients to access personalized videos which explain the recycling process so anyone ranging from children at schools or adults in offices know how to use the recycling program.
Everyone is a Recycler
Improving the state of recycling means innovating. Lady Green Recycling is taking bold steps to create a strong plastic market in South Florida by selling and repurposing plastic. They were inspired by their collaboration with local organizations like Miami Waste Paper and global communities like Precious Plastic, which promotes the concept ‘everyone is a recycler’ and provides open-source designs for machines that transform ordinary plastic items into useful products and art. Communities all over the world take Precious Plastic workshops where they collect & shred plastic, then create products from the recycled plastic.
Now, Lady Green Recycling recently obtained their own plastic shredding and molding machinery which allows them to shred plastic, make new products and also sell raw material. Investing in machinery to make new products and also serve as educational tools is something Michelle has wanted to accomplish for years. These new products and services are “meant to entertain and be interactive but also lower contamination rates.”
They also partnered with EcoBox to collect plastic through reverse vending machines while rewarding contributors. Reverse vending machines are currently used in 38 countries and have high recycling rates up to 98% recycling rate. The Ecobox can fit up to 700 bottles and will first be launched at two Milam’s Market locations beginning January 2021.
Lady Green Recycling will also be officially launching their mobile app in January 2021. The new tool allows users to track their recycling and waste metrics, it also has an educational, bin-sorting game to teach people how to recycle right.
“We've already tested the game with kids and adults, and it's definitely proven to teach people how to recycle properly,” says Michelle. In the game, an item will appear on the screen and you swipe it into the correct bin: either the bottle bin, paper bin or trash bin. The demo version is already available on the Apple Store. The next release will get more educational activities as well as display the Ecobox locations nearest you.
For its 10 year anniversary celebration in December 2020, Michelle will be publishing the Lady Green Club children's book to inspire younger generations to get involved. They also offer books, toolkits and various community activities.
“Our approach sees people as the key element to fix plastic pollution. Sometimes they are not willing to change their complete lifestyle, and we have to let them know that you can make small changes that aren't going to get in the way of your everyday life but can still make a big impact.”
P.S. The cover image: 'Jokester 2' by Paula Crown. This sculpture serves as a giant stop sign, asking us to confront the urgent issue of over-consumption and waste of single use plastics | Miami Design District.