Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Conventional wisdom holds that with environmental protection and economic growth, one must come at the other’s expense. The case of Dynamic Lifecycle Innovations, based in Onalaska, provides an encouraging counterexample to show how entrepreneurship can provide environmental benefits.
Dynamic processes and recycles electronic waste, reusing the reusable components and breaking down and recycling the base materials of what can’t be reused. Today, the company makes over $70 million in annual revenue and employs over 320 predominantly local people, and keeps toxic materials out of landfills by repurposing them. Thirteen years ago, before the issue of e-waste appeared on the radars of many environmentalists, Dynamic was started by two twenty-something friends who saw a gap in the market they could fill.
Interviewing Curt Greeno, Dynamic’s president,, and one of the two founders, I was astounded by the company’s rough-and-tumble origins. In high school, Curt was friends with Miles Harter, Dynamic’s CEO and co-founder. At age 23, Curt left his job at a bank when Miles came to him with an opportunity: Miles’s family was in the garbage and recycling business (Harter’s Quick Clean Up), and he saw that Harter’s facilities lacked a way to process electronic waste like TVs and computer monitors. The first year, the two hired a single employee, and the three of them used hammers and screwdrivers to disassemble electronics in a 4400 square-foot warehouse. They made many trips to Menards to buy tools and, with little pre-existing technical expertise, Googled “how to demanufacture a TV” to guide them through the process.
The team expanded to seven people the second year and continued to grow from there, drawing people excited by the company’s growth potential and capable of wearing many hats. The vast majority of people didn’t come from the recycling industry. Dynamic stayed in the La Crosse area because the founders loved the area and had deep roots here, but they did have to move facilities four times in Onalaska due to the ever increasing need for operating space. In 2012, Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 5000 ranked Dynamic as the 79th fastest growing privately held company in America. A few years ago, Dynamic opened a second facility in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dynamic continues to evolve, re-inventing itself every four to five years. Now the facilities use several types of machines, and people, to dismantle and sort waste. Each department is built around highly trained subject matter experts. The company buys scrap materials from all over the world and offers some services through several carefully vetted partners. Third parties certify Dynamic as a reputable recycler. With Covid-19, the facilities are currently operating at fifty to sixty percent capacity, but the company still has plans to find more customers and expand the services they offer. Dynamic is already certified to process ninety percent of solar panels on the market. Strikingly, the need to recycle solar panels, seen by energy experts as a looming problem set to hit us in a couple decades, becomes another business opportunity.
Turning a profit requires carefully balancing the costs of paying down-stream partners to process tricky materials with sources of income, from manufacturers and consumers and buyers of the valuable materials. Dynamic’s growth attests to the team’s skill at this balancing act, and, already processing the materials of several Fortune 500 companies, Dynamic has carved a niche for itself at the national level.
Dynamic is the classic entrepreneurial story: recognizing a gap in the market, taking a risk, and growing through meticulous dedication and (in this case literal) scrappiness. In Onalaska, Wisconsin of all the places in the country, starting out with Menards trips and Google searches, a company grew to a national scale to handle our most technically demanding waste problems of today and tomorrow. Whether your interest is in environmental protection or in economic growth, that’s pretty darn inspiring.
Photos from https://thinkdynamic.com/
About the blogger:
Tracy Zhou is a sophomore studying environmental economics at Yale University, and she will be taking online classes from her Onalaska home this fall. She hopes to eventually work with environmental policy as a career. Her other interests include history, pottery, and fiction novels—particularly fantasy novels written for preteens. When she’s not binging a tv show, she loves going on walks and bike trips and making tasty food.