Elias Allen is a character. He prides himself on his impersonations of actors and sports analysts, never misses an Instagram moment and has a pretty sweet man-crush on Batman. But there's also a polar side to the 26-year-old, Hilo native. As the Operations Manager of Atlas Recycling for the west side of the Big Island, it's a must.
In 1984, Mike Allen, Elias’ father and Atlas founder, began buying aluminum cans for $0.25 per pound from people in Kona to fill two voids: he was unable to land a decent job, and to recycle what people thought was simply just trash. He then sold the aluminum cans he garnered to a company in the mainland for a profit. Over time, Atlas gradually expanded and when the State sanctioned “Bottle Bill”—commonly known as “HI-5”—was passed, the incentive for people to recycle only drew more attention and business to the company.
“They just published an article in West Hawaii Today actually,” says the younger Allen, who now resides in Kailua-Kona. “Right now, almost 80% of every single redeemable beverage container is being recycled around the state.” He went on to say, “Once the bottle bill was passed in , people kind of got it in their minds that recycling was better for the environment and kept materials out of the landfill, but it also put some money into your pocket.”
Unable to grasp the intricacies of business as an adolescent, Allen absorbed his father’s knowledge on a daily basis; whether laboring on the recycling yard or overhearing the recycling business jargon, he became well versed in the culture of Atlas. Unlike many who take a few years to figure out the right direction and degree for them, Elias was naturally led into the world of business. But textbooks and lectures can only offer so much understanding.
“The Shidler College of Business [at the University of Hawaii at Manoa] provided a good open door for me,” explains Allen, “as far as opening my eyes to a lot of things that go on behind the scenes of a business. But things that you do in your day-in-and-day-out routine at work, you’ll never learn in school. Especially in business, you never really learn things until you get your hands dirty and experience everything for yourself.”
Overseeing a recycling business is a demanding and dirty job: hiring and firing employees, completing stacks of paperwork, processing material from customers, preparing shipping containers, dealing with the unpleasant smell of recyclables for hours on end—and most of it is done with the Kona sun getting intimate with the back of your neck.
“It’s rewarding to me on multiple levels,” says Allen. “Mostly because I’m able to see my gradual progression as far as my knowledge of the business and moving up in the company ... when I graduated college I just was a laborer. As time went on and I got more comfortable and knowledgeable, in turn I gained more and more responsibility.”
But the most satisfying element for Allen isn’t about being on top of the recycling game. It isn’t about being in charge of employees who may be older than him. It isn’t even about having more responsibility than most of his friends his age. It’s the loyal customers who come in weekly and the relationships he’s built with them.
“One of the main positives of this particular business is to be able to help out people in the community,” says Allen. “Giving some extra money in their pocket, and that’s the joy I get out of it. You get a lot of regular customers that you form friendly relationships with. Where we live, Hilo and Kona, it’s a small community vibe so I mean, you get to know a lot of people in the community and help them get that extra 12-pack or extra pound poke.”
The company has gradually evolved from recycling just aluminum cans to a number of things like copper, radiators, stainless steel, lead, starters and alternators for cars, newspapers and cardboards. Atlas even assists in coordinating field trips for children to visit one of their plants to learn about recycling, as well as helps organizations with recycling fundraisers.
Elias Allen has done the necessary work so far to make sure his father knows that Atlas Recycling is in good hands. It’s not as if he stepped out of the classroom immediately into the role of his father’s right hand man. The journey so far has been a humbling and worthwhile experience because he’s earned it. There’s no doubt that once all the keys are handed to him, the elevation of the company will not stop.
PHOTO: Shadi Faridi