By Aswad Walker
Brandi Harleaux, CEO of South Post Oak Recycling Center and this year’s Small Business Administration’s Texas Business Owner of the Year, is just as passionate about community service as she is about running her game-changing business. Enter “Every Day is Earth Day,” Harleaux’s K-12 recycling education program.
The Defender spoke with Harleaux about the genesis of “Every Day is Earth Day” and why educating Black youth about the power of recycling is so important.
DEFENDER: What was the genesis of ‘Every day is Earth Day?’
HARLEAUX: So, a passion in this area preceded me; I would say, my dad, Freddy Robinson, even before I joined the company 10 years ago. I call him a humble servant because he is what I would call, I hate to say old school, but he is. He is a previous generation in a good way. He would sponsor local football teams. If there were churches in our areas that needed support for leadership programs, he would sponsor those. If there was a local elementary school that needed supplies, he would sponsor that. So, when I came on board 10 years ago, I said, “Dad, I love what you’re doing. And yet I think we can make it more focused and concentrated than it is, so that it can have exponential impact.” So, what that started to look like was me saying, “What’s important to us?”
DEFENDER: So, what is important to your company?
HARLEAUX: So, we have five pillars now, of areas that are priority. One of them is kind of our origins, and it is K1-12 education on recycling; what recycling is, what recycling isn’t. We kind of took a liking to that and that started to look like school tours and inviting different schools or programs to our facility to see what recycling looks like, specifically metal recycling. Because I think a lot of people think paper/plastics, because that is where curbside occurs. But we knew that 70% of recyclables actually don’t happen at the curbside. It happens in facilities like ours. It’s industrial. But because people see a bin, whether it be green or blue, they associate recycling with that. So, we wanted to be a part of the conversation to say, “We should do that, but know that that only represents 30% of recycling. So, we want you to come to our facility. We want you to see what’s happening.”
DEFENDER: Are there any other aspects to the “Every Day is Earth Day” program?
HARLEAUX: So, in the course of that, I joined a board for a trade association that we’re part of called the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry (ISRI). ISRI is a national organization based out of Washington, DC and they represent the voice of the recycling industry: metals, electronics, paper, plastic and rubber. They had at that time started working with National Geographic in an organization called Jason’s Learning. Between ISRI and those two organizations, they partnered together and started to create curriculum designed for grades K through 12 that was recycling and STEM-focused all together. And by doing that they would feature different recycling advocates. They made curriculum that teachers can really just lift off the shelf, whether that be elementary, middle school or high school.
And I’m all about thinking entrepreneurship and scalability, accessing things that already exist and not recreating the wheel. So, we partnered with Jason’s Learning, we partnered with ISRI and what we started to do, our first phase was to sponsor a local middle school here (Lawson Middle School). And I shared with our company, “I believe we should have an impact in the communities in which we do business.” And we’ve always believed that. So, for us it was like, “Let’s pilot it with Lawson.” We sponsored their science club, and we liked the dynamic. The teachers liked it because they didn’t have to create anything. They could just pretty much pull it off of the website. We paid for them to have access to it. And we said, “This is a good start.” Fast-forward, we’re preparing for Earth Day again, and this year was my tenth Earth Day preparing for being in the industry. And we were thinking, “You know, we celebrate this one day, but every day is actually Earth Day,” meaning the choices that we make, the behaviors that we make as consumers, as citizens and so forth, impact the earth every day. So, why not have a movement that says every day is Earth Day?
DEFENDER: Why the K-12 focus?
HARLEAUX: You can start with adult behaviors. In education, you can start with children. We have social media and we have other opportunities to continue to talk to adults and businesses. We’re gonna keep doing that. But for this campaign, we figured we would partner with different schools in District K, but also around the city of Houston. And we’d identify one school a month, and partner with them to have not only education on recycling, but have an experience. Run a recycling campaign and have whatever is collected, use those monies to go back to the school, and they can invest it or allocate it however they want. That’s where this started. We really thought it could be multipurpose. We can educate about recycling because there’s a lot of misnomers about it and misconceptions. We can educate people on the behaviors by inviting them to our facility. And we can make it very actionable and tangible for them. They can actually participate in a recycling campaign, generate money from it because we’re dealing with commodities and not trash, and then the schools would then have social as well as financial and economic upsides.