The environment must really love Doug Comer.
For more than two decades, this Dorsey entrepreneur has owned and operated Douglas Recycling (or, as it was known when it first opened, Comer Recycling), a relatively small operation that nevertheless manages to move hundreds of thousands of pounds of paper and plastic each year. It’s a career that he started on a slight whim, nearly cost him everything he owns, and has inevitably provided the kind of simple, fulfilling lifestyle he wanted.
About a mile west of Dorsey school, Comer’s business features no distinctive signage, but is nevertheless impossible to miss. Just look for the stacks of paper, plastic and wood. Most people would call it trash; he makes his living off all that junk.
Comer, 63, gives the impression of being a laid back, easygoing guy. Chatty and affable, he was eager to share the details of his livelihood.
“One thing people don’t understand about recycling is how similar it is to farming,” Comer said, leading the way into the business’ main warehouse. The space was lined with hulking cubes of cardboard, newsprint and plastic. Slightly off from the center of the room was a large baler, the mouth of which was accessible by a short set of stairs. More huge cubes of cardboard, recently compacted and roped with twine, sat near the open end of the machine.
“Yes,” Comer said. He’s done a bit of farming himself. As he sees it, the recycling business is remarkably similar.
Comer purchases recyclable materials from several regular sources. For one example, he’s under contract with the nearby Toyota Boshoku plant to purchase refuse plastic door panel parts. When he picks up a load, the materials are carried back to his warehouse, sorted by material and then fed into the open-end auto tie bailer. As they are, the machine compresses the materials and ties them off into huge, 2,000 pound blocks. Like a farmer with his yield, Comer will sell these gigantic blocks of would-be garbage.
“Each month, the market moves up and down,” he explained. Again, like a farmer, Comer sells his bundled recyclables based on market values. Sometimes, certain types of plastics or cardboard may be up, or down. Sometimes, he may make a killing on newsprint; other times, it’s hardly worth what he paid for it.
Once sold, the blocks of material will be broken down in various ways, depending on what it is, and used to create new materials. These are sold to companies all over the world, which use the new material to package their products or create merchandise. These days, just about everything has a recycled component in it.
“This stuff goes everywhere,” Comer said, motioning to the whole of his warehouse. It was largely empty that day, a sight he called uncommon. Most days, there are stacks of bundled cardboard, paper or plastic everywhere.
Comer pointed to several hulking bundles of plastic. Each, he said, weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 pounds.
“Those will either go to China or India,” he said.
Additionally, Comer recycles wooden pallets, although this process is far less involved. Each pallet is broken apart; the quality wood is culled and rebuilt into new pallets right there on the property.
When Comer first opened his recycling business more than 26 years ago, he didn’t really know a thing about what he was doing. He was working as a truck driver when the idea struck him.
“There was a little shop behind Comer’s Restaurant. I moved in there,” Comer said. “At the time, I didn’t know a thing about the business. [I just knew] that everybody generates a lot of paper.”
Comer’s business started off small and just kind of remained that way.
“We’re not what you’d call a ‘big business,’” he said with a laugh. That fact doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “I never cared too much about getting big, just making a living. This has fed my family, so I guess I’ve done well.”
But the recycling business hasn’t always been so kind. To continue with Comer’s farming analogy, there have been times when the harvest wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Some years are just bad. For Comer and his fellow recyclers, that was 2008. When the market hit rock bottom, so too did Comer’s business.
“Every time I picked up a load, I lost money,” he said.
During that period, Comer’s life was far from easy. Times were so tough that many of his fellow recyclers were forced to close shop. By what he calls the “grace of God,” Comer was able to keep his doors open.
“I still had the business, but we were losing money every month,” he said. “I had to sell my gun collection, my Goldwing … I even had my place up for sale. It was probably the lowest place I’ve ever been in my life.”
This low point lasted for approximately seven months. Then, like a sudden break in the clouds, the torrent of bad news stopped.
“It bounced back, and big time,” he said.
Within a year, Comer was able to pay off all the debts he’d accrued during the slump.
Now, the business is back on solid ground. Comer’s up to five employees at this point, including his son, Brian, who handles a bulk of the day-to-day operations. While most of the finances still run through Comer, most days he drives the company truck, picking up and dropping off materials.
“I like working for Doug,” he said, jokingly referring to himself. “I can get mad at myself and get over it pretty quick.”
There’s a bit of a revival in recycling right now. With just about every Tom, Dick and Harry “going green,” the call for what Comer has to offer hasn’t been this much in demand for years.
It’s good for the environment and good for business. Much of the recycling business eventually comes down to wants and needs of the retailers. For example, most of the products Walmart stocks involve recycled components. If a company wants to see its products on Walmart’s shelf, it has to be using recycled materials. Like a cascading line of dominoes, the result of Walmart’s demands eventually collapse near the feet of recyclers like Comer.
“The renewed interest in recycling — in ‘going green’ — has certainly helped my business,” Comer said.
Fairly frequently, Comer will receive visits from local folks wanting to pitch in with the recycling effort, dropping off their household recyclables at his business. He welcomes this. In fact, he does it himself.
In other words, please recycle.