When Tai Verbrugge ’19 was at home the summer before last, his mom asked him to take a load of old electronics to the dump. But as an accounting major minoring in sustainability, Tai knew there must be a less wasteful option. After doing some research he discovered that, “almost anything that’s metal or electronic can be recycled.” Scrap yards will buy electronics and then extract the precious metals. It turns out that this uses 70% less energy than mining the metals and can be much more lucrative than paying the city to take a fridge to the dump. So in between his job at a country club and his ambassadorship with Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative, Tai spent the summer starting a business.
Tai grew up in Grand Rapids, MI spending time outdoors and learning that it’s important to leave the trail or campsite better than he found it. Tai continues to honor this mantra even as he pursues his passion for business. While he finds great satisfaction in a transaction that leaves both the businessman and client happy, Tai also wants to make the world better. “I didn’t want it to be just about the dollar,” he explains.
Azaula Recycling, the business he started with his high school friend Joe Gamino-Kirkhoff, is a company that fits Tai’s values. While keeping pounds of electronics out of landfills, Tai and Joe relieve their clients and also make some money. For households, they charge $10 per pick up and take any electronic waste that the home provides. For businesses, they provide a bin for the company to fill at its leisure, and alert Azaula when it’s full. Then Tai or Joe is there within 24 hours to sort it and bring it to the scrapyard. Since they know they’ll make a profit from a whole bin of metal, the commercial package is completely free. The scrap yards pay them by the pound and prices fluctuate, just like in any other commodity market.
Back at Notre Dame, Tai still manages the logistics of the business, while Joe conducts pick-ups in Grand Rapids. “Over the summer we were in growth mode. We were tying to sign as many clients as possible,” Tai explains. From knocking on businesses’ doors, advertising through social media and making phone calls, they pushed the word out and were happy with the response over the summer. Now, they’re focused on retaining their current clients in Grand Rapids while Tai does business development in South Bend.
Scrap yards in South Bend don’t pay nearly as much for metal waste as those in Grand Rapids. “Except for one type of metal that is very abundant on college campuses, for which I’m thankful,” Tai says. A large part of his efforts on campus is thinking of creative ways to salvage those aluminum cans, knowing he’ll make a profit. Another component of his work is reaching out to South Bend businesses and discovering where their waste goes. He knows that many places, ranging from bakeries to Club Fever, have aluminum waste. He just needs to find it.
The last component of Tai’s South Bend business development efforts is to pitch his business to Notre Dame’s IDEA (Innovation, De-Risking and Enterprise Acceleration) Center, based at Innovation Park. The IDEA center works to build up entrepreneurship at the university. Tai explains that the Center has many alumni connections and a lot of funding which it uses to support student-based ventures. Tai sees the potential. “If we could get even just a crumb of that business that would be huge for us.”
When he pauses to think about the future of his business, Tai is ready to consider the possibilities. “My end goal in my career was always to run a sustainable business, a green company.” While Tai thought that this achievement would only come after some years gaining money and experience at an accounting firm, he’d be glad to be proven wrong. “If the business grows and it’s large enough to support me I’d love to do that full-time.” But he also knows that such a reality is very distant, and ponders the potential of a larger, established waste management company buying them out. This option would also please Tai. “The important thing is that the metal gets recycled,” he says.
For now, Tai seems content to learn from the experience and see where the business goes next. In the meantime, there’s one thing about the business that continuously brings him joy. “It’s just a little thing that makes me super happy,” Tai says before telling me about his mom’s Filipino heritage. Tai’s always been proud of this heritage and of his mom, but her name doesn’t show up anywhere. Except on his business. Azaula is his mom’s maiden name and Azaula Recycling is named after her, which seems fitting given the request that prompted the company’s development. But more importantly perhaps, “It’s my way of tipping a hat to her,” Tai says. “My way of keeping her family name alive.”