Sustainable Hope—Nikki Okuk

Sustainable Hope—Nikki Okuk

Sustainability, whether economic, social, or environmental, is an essential concept for the survival of any civilization. For any society to achieve true sustainability, it must satisfy all three of these categories.  Economic and social sustainability cannot be attained by ignoring environmental concerns.  Even so, today, we aren’t meeting the demands of our society and especially financial needs by ignoring ecological needs, which compromises future generations' abilities to meet any of their own needs. To change this trend, it's going to start with the individual. In other words, we need people who care enough to be examples, make necessary sacrifices and change attitudes to rise to the challenges of this tremendous existential threat facing our times, Global Warming. 

I believe Nikki Okuk is one of these people who possess the spirit to step up and become a leader of our era. An LA native, Okuk comes from a fifth-generation family of community/labor organizers.  She attended college in New York at Columbia as an economics major. Okuk completed her MBA at Nanyang University in Singapore, including a Sloan School of Business certificate at MIT.

"You know, my Grandma really liked to fish and garden. She'd take me camping a lot, up in the mountains, so being with her made me think of the as a family member. Something you take care of.”

She opened RCO² Material Reuse in 2011 in Compton, which was a tire recycling/upcycling business. Okuk stated, "I had this MBA….So how do I use all this education I have and take it back to my community? I wanted to build a business that created an environmental impact, though I also wanted to create jobs. I looked at plastics…oil…all types of recycling projects and finally decided on tires because we have a big waste-tire problem in SoCal."

In the beginning, they had a small warehouse, one forklift, one used truck, and just started collecting tires. They quickly found out the chips were stacked against them. Okuk says, "The big recyclers don't pay you to bring in tires; you pay them. It's very expensive, which is why people don't recycle their tires… it's expensive to do the right thing, the green thing." 

The concept of upcycling is not just making something else with the tire but making something specific of a higher quality.  Okuk and her team developed a manufacturing process to upcycle truck tires into loading dock bumpers and marine fenders, among other things.

"We made all kinds of crazy things…any piece of the tire we could sell; we were figuring out how to do that. We grew really fast…servicing most of the trucking companies in the Ports of Long Beach and LA. We rented  a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Compton."  Okuk and her family were sleeping in the warehouse, and through all the years of the business, Okuk never took a salary.  She sacrificed much to keep her business going.  It provided much-needed jobs for her community,  stability for her employees, and a vital service to the earth.

RCO² processed twelve hundred tires daily, five days per week, four weeks per month, twelve months per year, for eight years. That's 2.3 million tires taken out of the environment.  Moreover, every tire contains twenty-two gallons of oil, that's over fifty million gallons of oil—roughly equal to five times the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons—were repurposed and didn't end up in an ever-expanding tire graveyard.

Okuk reminisced, "We got to be a pretty big business in just eight years…problem was, we never made much money.  The margins in recycling are very slim, and that's true for all recyclers."

Unfortunately, Okuk's company, like so many others, did not survive the pandemic. "Early in the pandemic, my rent went up from fifteen to twenty-four thousand dollars at the same time all my business fell off,"  Okuk recalled. She hung on as long as she could for her employees.  She said, "I was so sad when I had to lay-off, my guys."

Okuk isn't one to stay down; after closing her business in 2020, she still wanted to work in the sustainability field. Today, she works at CALSTART, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing clean transportation technologies and systems and accelerating clean transportation development. As Deputy Director and Alternative Fuels Program Manager, Okuk is developing a $25 million project called the Innovative Small E-Fleets Project to assist small trucking fleets in making the transition to zero-emission electric vehicles. You can find out more at californiaHVIP.org and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Okuk is someone to look out for in the future of this struggle to achieve sustainability and save our planet. It's people like Okuk that'll change the world. At the end of our talk, I asked: When did you realize the importance of the environment? She replied thoughtfully, "You know, my Grandma really liked to fish and garden. She'd take me camping a lot, up in the mountains, so being with her made me think of the earth as a family member.  Something you take care of."

To check out Nikki Okuk's work, look her up at californiaHVIP.org and @niniokuk on Instagram.
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