Joe Suleyman is the award-winning director of New Hanover County’s Recycling and Solid Waste Department, but he was once a salesman, an aspiring pilot and an Army Corps of Engineers platoon leader.
After growing up in Ohio, Suleyman attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. However, his graduation from pilot school aligned with the bankruptcy of Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), so Suleyman switched gears and joined the military in 1994.
Suleyman deployed to Germany as an officer for the Army Corps of Engineers. For six months, his team cleared minefields in Bosnia by inching forward on their stomachs across the ground, he said, trying to locate between 6 and 8 million mines resulting from the area’s civil war.
Once he returned stateside in 1999, he faced a predicament many veterans face: what to do after the military.
He tried sales for 18 months and hated every minute of it, he said, which led him to Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. For that job, he moved to Charlotte, then Arkansas. He led the hazardous waste management team, introducing him to the waste management industry. What set him on this path was the leadership skills he learned from the military, he said.
From then on, he was a leader in the waste industry, moving from Gum Springs to Greenville, South Carolina, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Wilmington in 2012 – where he said he plans to retire.
The N.C. Coastal Federation recognized Suleyman in August for several waste and recycling initiatives, including his work on an oyster shell recycling program. He received the group’s Pelican Award, celebrating “environmental stewardship,” according to a release.
“Getting nominated for the Pelican Award was a huge surprise and honor for me. Honestly, I don’t know if I deserve this because there’s a lot of very talented and committed people in that group,” Suleyman said.
The oyster shell recycling program Suleyman instituted placed two large containers: one at Wrightsville and one at Carolina Beach. The Wrightsville Beach container remains a success and collects three to four tons of shells every six weeks, varying seasonally, he said. Those at Carolina Beach, however, used the container as a dumping ground for unwanted furniture, resulting in the removal of the container.
People can use the recycled shells for coral reef reconstruction, driveway gravel, footpaths and roofing, Suleyman said.
The Coastal Federation asked him to participate in the organization’s oyster project because his office had large containers. He said he was not the initiative’s leader but had numerous container responsibilities.
“We patched them up, welded them, sanded them, painted them a nice bright orange color, stickered them up, got them out there, helped advertise it, serviced the container, collected them down at the landfill, coordinated with the marine fisheries,” he said. “It wasn’t giving blood or anything.”
Suleyman said this job has high stakes because of New Hanover County’s proximity to the ocean.
The closer you are to the ocean, the more runoff risks and the easier it is for plastic and other waste materials to end up in the water. Even the wind can blow waste materials into the ocean, he said.
The tourism market also complicates his job in managing the county’s recycling.
“[Tourists are] from all over the country, so they don’t understand what we can and can’t recycle here,” he said. “A lot of them don’t care to recycle because they’re like, ‘I’m on vacation,’ so it all just goes in the trash.
“If you were to graph it out, you would see a huge spike in contamination of the recyclables when it’s peak tourist season.”
Due in part to the tourism industry, Wilmington recycles below the national average of 30% of its waste stream, he said.
An essential part of Suleyman’s job is convincing the public that the county’s recycling team actually recycles. He gives tours of his facility to educate people about the recycling process, but also to assure the public that his team is doing what they say they are, he said.
The future of the county’s solid waste management is a problem waiting to be solved, he said. The county’s landfill will be full in 29 years, and the county can’t build another because of rules limiting the distance between landfills. This limitation makes recycling especially important in New Hanover County, he said, as not to fill the little remaining landfill space with items that could have been recycled.
“Whoever is alive now, their kids are going to face a trash crisis,” he said.
Suleyman’s newest initiative is an improved customer convenience site at the landfill. The site will open sometime in November and help people dispose of their waste without traffic flow issues and with new services, he said. The old waste disposal area had become the site of multiple physical altercations between people trying to drop off their trash, he said.
Suleyman said his favorite part of his job is being able to innovate freely. He loves being able to allow his employees to pitch their own ideas and problem-solve, he said. It helps the work environment too.
The food waste composting program and double reverse osmosis wastewater treatment plant at the landfill, both unique in the state, are examples of ideas brought to Suleyman by his frontline workers, he said.
“There is no problem that we’ve faced that we haven’t sat down and figured out on our own,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better staff.”