Growing up on her grandparents' farm in Southwest Virginia, Brenda Robinson made mischief dismantling her granddad's rail fence and building a cabin from the boards. Fifty years later, she's president of a company that harvests leftover peanut shells, coal ash and yard clippings to make industrial materials such as boards, cement and compost. And business is booming.
"The market has finally awakened," she says.
Robinson doesn't look like the typical green spokesperson. She wears an elegant sleeveless black wrap dress, a fistful of cocktail rings and a pair of -- albeit slightly muddy high heels for a recent morning of off-roading through the grounds of her Chester facility in her hybrid SUV.
She makes a loop around mounds of compost in various stages of decomposition, past a field of coal ash, like the kind she uses in her cement patch product, PaveMend. The Virginia Department of Transportation used it to patch the Huguenot Bridge. The military became a client in 2004 because the cement's quick setting time allows soldiers to seize airstrips, patch the bomb craters and land aircraft in a matter of hours. Behind a warehouse where workers break down industrial machinery for scrap, Robinson pulls up by a dogwood sapling that former Gov. Mark Warner planted last month on Earth Day.
"He said that the sustainability market is at the point where dot-com was when he got into Nextel," Robinson says of Warner's early investments in the cell phone industry.
Robinson started Environmental Solutions Inc. in 1990 after she and her husband left good-paying jobs at Reynolds Metals. After he died in 2002, she took over as president and says business has grown 300 percent. The company brings in between $5 million and $10 million annually, she says.
Craig Nessler, director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station at Virginia Tech, says the last three years have seen huge growth in businesses like Robinson's. The industry vocabulary has begun to shift from "waste" to "byproducts" and "residue" instead.
"As petroleum-based materials become more and more expensive, then these residues will become competitive," he says. His staff is working on projects ranging from turning chicken litter into fuel and fertilizer to using chicken feathers to make a biodegradable plastic.
Hurdles remain. Pat Hadden, who oversees the compost program at Ukrop's Super Markets, says the grocery chain started processing waste from its prepared-foods kitchen in 2002 for environmental reasons, but the market has responded so enthusiastically that they run out of stock every year.
"It's something that has value," Hadden says.
Changing the market mentality may take time, but Robinson is optimistic. "I hope that we make a product that's so valuable," she tells new clients, "that one day you will charge me to take your waste."