By Jake Henry
Growing up in Ballard, there were a number of things that were second nature. Anticipating that you will get stuck waiting for the Ballard Bridge on a sunny afternoon. Going to Golden Gardens for the best view of the sunset. And, of course, recycling and composting.
That’s why it was a surprise, as I started my freshman year at the University of Washington, to learn that most people don’t grow up recycling and composting from a young age. As I met people from across the country, I began to understand how unique Seattle’s recycling culture is, and how much others can learn from us.
An opportunity to “walk the talk” came my junior year. I moved into a house with 13 guys from all over the country and realized we didn’t have a single recycling or compost container. I found old containers at Goodwill, labeled them with a black marker (“recycling only,” “food scraps and compostables only”), and set to work training my housemates to put everything in the right containers.
As it turned out, that experience came in handy when it was time to hunt for internships. This summer I joined the Waste Management Recycle Corps, a team of 14 college students working with communities, businesses and multifamily properties across greater Seattle to reduce waste and improve recycling.
Waste Management created the internship program to give future sustainability leaders the opportunity to learn the latest strategies in waste reduction and recycling behavior change and then apply learnings to help reduce what goes to the landfill.
While the hands-on experience as a recycling educator has been invaluable, I also learned a lot from the people I met along the way. I learned that kids make great teachers. At events like Seafair, Duwamish River Festival, and National Night Out, you can count on kids to try their hand at recycling games and talk their parents into playing, too. Some of the best conversations I had with community members happened because their kids were captivated by the Wheel of Waste and jumping up and down to guess which items go in which cart.
I also learned it can be challenging to set up successful recycling systems in apartment buildings. This summer, we worked with property managers in more than 20 cities across two counties, helping them to create systems that work efficiently in small spaces and make sense to the residents who live there. Systems must be convenient for residents short on time and easy to learn for people who are new to the building.
“Cracking the code” on multifamily recycling is like a 1,000-piece puzzle. It involves placing the right containers in the right places, with signage in the right languages – so everything works together. I like to think our conversations with residents are the last piece of puzzle. Explaining the resources available to residents and making sure they have educational materials in the language they are most comfortable with, helped make the pieces click into place.
My internship helped me understand why some communities are better at recycling than others, and gave me a deeper appreciation for the recycling education I had right here in Ballard, from a young age. At the end of the day, the recycling basics are simple:
1. Recycle all empty bottles, cans and paper
2. Keep food and liquids out of recycling
I will go back to UW this fall with a renewed excitement for educating my community about the importance of sustainability. I will also take with me a deeper appreciation for the green culture and recycling savvy that make Seattle a world-class sustainable city.
Jake Henry is a rising senior studying Terrestrial Resource Management at the University of Washington. He also works as a softball intramural umpire for UW. Jake designed the new informational brochure for the red wolf exhibit at Point Defiance Zoo.