Native American start-up business aims to clean up Rez and turn a profit

Tyler Tawahongva stands amid piles of material to be recycled. Photo/Donovan Quintero

Tyler Tawahongva stands amid piles of material to be recycled. Photo/Donovan Quintero

TUBA CITY, Ariz. - Tyler Tawahongva hopes people's trash becomes a successful business for him on the reservation. He hopes to take Cloud Nine Recycling to the next level with help from a green business start-up award and a GoFundMe campaign.

Cloud is Tawahongva's Hopi name. Cloud Nine is a state of bliss, a positive state, according to Tawahongva.

With help from mentor Jessica Stago, senior business counselor for Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN), and Grand Canyon Trust, Tawahongva landed a Green Business in Indian Country Start-up Award from Colorado-based NGO Trees, Water, People. He now has a website, the right to enter into contracts on the reservation and an accounting structure in place.

He launched a one-month crowd funding campaign in June to raise $5,000 to buy a 13-foot box truck to replace rental fees.

Tawahongva transformed the dusty lot surrounding his trailer into a neatly ordered junkyard of cardboard, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and disemboweled electronics, which he mines for steel, aluminum, and especially copper wire, which can fetch over two dollars per pound.

He travels from Tuba City to Flagstaff to rent a truck, drives back to Tuba City to load the material he has collected from the waste transfer station in Tuba City and from other businesses and organizations and drives it south to Phoenix. While that is a long way, he said he is trying to make a living and that was the cheaper option at first.

"I do what I have to do," Tawahongva said. "It is a necessary evil. I don't see any other way to get the stuff out of here."

But he said a truck will help him cut costs, save time and make his business more efficient.

"We figured that a lot of the overhead is going to rental trucks," Tawahongva said. "The cost has to be low enough in order to make it profitable. I can't rent a truck for $200 or more, I'm going to lose money because all my profit is going to go into that."

With the price fluctuating on rental trucks, he has had to wait until a reasonable price comes around, which could take a few weeks. With his own truck, he will not be at the mercy of the rental company prices.

"If we can do a haul when we have enough product, then we're not waiting for the company to lower their price," Tawahongva said.

While at first he concentrated on cardboard, Tawahongva said he also collected metal and cans to recycle. In 2014, he hauled over 40,000 pounds of cardboard and paper. Now, with the price of cardboard down, he also wants to focus on metals and other small appliances that will bring in money, too.

"Pretty much anything that I could make money off of," he said.

But, he also wants to help people think differently about trash - to manage waste on the reservation.

He began at the waste transfer station in Tuba City, which has a couple of bins for cardboard and paper recycling. He noticed that those bins would fill up in less than a week. Because of that, material that could be recycled was ending up in the trash.

"I stepped in to pull out the excess cardboard," Tawahongva said. "That helped the flow of recyclables into those bins. I guess you could say it helped the community recycle more by helping out at that transfer station."

Before Tawahongva won the start-up award, he said he was in a real bind with cash flow problems.

"It's probably a small business dilemma, small businesses probably face dilemmas like this, 'How am I going to get through this?'" he said. "It was tight and I was desperate, so that is why I applied for it."

The award gave him enough money to continue his work. He had a backlog of cardboard because he had not been able to rent a truck to haul it away.

"It really kept things going," Tawahongva said.

He said, even with his business, there is a lot of competition and the question becomes how does one compete and make a living.

"How are we going to survive?" Tawahongva asked. "How does a Native American business survive out here?"

He is trying to create a model that works for others and he believes that if he and others can do it, or at least try, maybe they each will succeed.

"I'm trying to be a model for other entrepreneurs," Tawahongva said, adding that while most people on the reservation have business ventures that are cultural - arts and crafts - he feels that people need to expand their horizons. Recycling is one idea and a different prospect.

"It's just so new that it is uncharted territory," he said. "We're trying to map the course along the way because it is just so different. If it were arts and crafts they would know exactly what to do. But it's more of a challenge... and so volatile."

Tawahongva said the more successful he gets the more employees he can hire. He would like to expand to more areas and different chapters on the reservation and create proposals to charge monthly fees to bring in cash flow. He sees a lot of potential but he has to get through where he is now.

"I'm still in a start-up phase," he said. "It is really challenging at this point. Sort of back to that point before I got the award. We're trying to weather the storm here and get back on our feet."

But in the end, while making a living is important, Tawahongva also has another goal.

"We want to make money doing it and help the environment at the same time," he said. "There's a principal behind it and that is what drives me...hopefully I'm bringing some awareness."

More information about donating to Cloud Nine Recycling can be found at http://www.gofundme.com/v7fbng8g. More information on Cloud Nine Recycling can be found at http://www.cloudninerecycling.com.

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