Kirsti Nelson has been in the plastic trash container industry for 11 years, in management jobs at Otto Environmental Systems N.A. Inc. in North Carolina, where today she heads the company's new retail division.
But in a way, the 45-year-old executive traces her interest in waste back several decades before, to a family trip to the Grand Canyon.
“I was probably only about four or five, we were at the Grand Canyon, and I spit my gum out into the Grand Canyon,” she said.
Her father's reaction sticks with her today: “I thought my Dad was going to throw me down after it to make me go get it.
“He taught me that littering was bad and it just became a full circle kind of fate, here I am in the trash industry,” she said.
Otto injection molds garbage bins and containers for the waste and recycling at plants in North Carolina and Arizona.
“Garbage men can have their own reputation but truly, if you take a macro look at the waste industry and recycling industry, it really does keep people healthy and safer,” she said.
It's important to find ways to be passionate about your work, Nelson believes. Appreciating the way trash collection helps society, and her company's role, is one way for her. In countries like the United States with better developed refuse collection, it's easy to take the health benefits for granted, she said.
Nelson also admits to really liking manufacturing. She came to Otto after stints in marketing positions in various manufacturing industries — from paper to recording equipment to consumer goods — and advises people looking at industrial careers to “really follow a passion of something.
“One of the reasons I've stuck with industrial products and manufacturing is it's really cool to see things get made,” she said.
Her career path at Otto has been from director of marketing to director of sales and, since 2014, vice president of a new retail division. Otto is expanding beyond its traditional businesses in industrial waste containers and contract injection molding. Nelson said she made a sales pitch to Home Depot in late 2013 and a few months later Otto won shelf space for its products.
She said a big job challenge now is growing in the very cost competitive world of big-box retail.
“With retail the winner is the guy with the most molds and the most products, and can you make those at the low cost you need to,” she said.
Nelson said she enjoys the diversity of plastics and is impressed by the technical knowledge.
Still, she said she's had experiences that make her feel the industry is less friendly toward women than, for example, the waste industry. She mentions her first time at the big U.S. plastics show, NPE, in 2006 in Chicago.
“There were barely any other women at that show and I was stared at so much,” she said. “I was walking around with my boss, the CEO at the time, and it made me very self-conscious.
“I'm used to being a minority in business, just by default there aren't tons of women in business,” Nelson said.
Nelson's achieved a lot in her career, including being named Member of the Year in 2013 by the Waste Technology Equipment Association, which was later absorbed into the National Waste & Recycling Association.
She said plastics has career potential, provided you have passion.
“There's so much opportunity with technology and design together,” she said. “It's amazing how things are progressing in plastics.”