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Kids in Action

Traverse Magazine, June, 1997

June 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Upon arriving at Brethren High School, in the deep woods of Manistee County, the first noticeable thing is how tidy everything is. Wrappers aren’t blowing around the parking lot. Balls of notebook paper appear only in well-marked trash cans.

Underlying this impressive display of teenage neatness is a lesson in linking environmental and economic goals. Brethren High School, it turns out, is the brain center of the student-managed Manistee County Recyclers, probably the most innovative and effective community paper recycling program in the state.

"It’s something we do for ourselves, our town, and the environment," said Amanda Spoor, a 17-year-old Brethren High School senior, and chair of the 15-member board that oversees the $125,000 a year program. "We’re not here to just mess things up. It gives me a rush of energy to want to do more."

It was the writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who during a tour of America 170 years ago noted the crucial role of small associations in making the country work. That clearly is the case in Manistee. The trash to cash project — a collaboration between industry, educators, students, and local government — is serving an exceptional number of socially useful ends:

In the more than two years that it has operated, nearly 2,400 tons of paper worth well over $200,000 has been collected. Almost $60,000 of the total revenue was returned for youth activities in Brethren, Bear Lake, Onekama, and the public and Catholic high schools in Manistee.

A plant to separate and process the paper was established in Manistee by Lakeshore Enterprises, a unit of the Manistee-Benzie Comunity Mental Health Board, a local government agency. Twelve developmentally disabled adults work at the plant.

A local business, Seng Crane and Excavating, provides drivers to transport semi truck trailers full of waste paper to the processing plant, and return empty trailers to the collection sites at five high school parking lots.

Tenneco Packaging, which operates a plant in Manistee, buys the waste paper, reducing the amount of trash that ends up in the landfill, and the need to cut live trees for pulp.

"The most encouraging thing is that the kids are really involved in making it work. It couldn’t be done without them," said Dan Welburn, a retired educator from Onekama who serves on the project board. "They are right there. There mothers and fathers are there. They see how this partnership works."

The project has garnered Spoor and other Brethren students state and national service awards. It’s also attracted the interest of neighboring counties. Organizing meetings have begun in Benzie County.

But while Manistee’s recycling program is a stirring success, it also was dependent on a convergence of fortunate events that may be difficult to duplicate. It began in the fall of 1994, when Bill Volkema, a superintendent of Tenneco Packaging, began talking with Judy Cunningham, a coordinator at Manistee Public Schools.

Volkema wanted to expand an in-plant recycling program that included paying youth groups for the waste paper they collected. Cunningham, a leader in the county’s Audubon chapter, saw an opportunity to provide student groups with a steady source of income while also clarifying environmental objectives, like reducing the stream of paper headed for the local landfill.

Volkema and Cunningham quickly concluded that they had four of the crucial facets of a successful program: a worthwhile rationale, a motivated labor force, a ready supply of recyclable trash, and a dependable market. They then set out to solve the three other critical needs: places to store the trash, a transportation capability, and a sorting and processing system.

What surprised everybody was how quickly these last pieces were assembled. George Ott, a supervisor of Lakeshore Enterprises, said his agency’s disabled clients could sort the paper. Bill Seng, the excavator and a youth advocate in Manistee, stepped in to provide a building, buy collection trailers,and supply drivers to transport the material. By February, 1995, just five months after the initial talks, the first load of recycled paper arrived at Tenneco.

Over the last two years, the white and green recycling trailers have become local fixtures. In Brethren student groups take turns organizing paper drives. Typically, a group fills a trailer in 10 days with 12 to 14 tons and collects $250 to $450.

Perhaps the only disappointment cited by students is that the system is capable of handling much more. Volkema estimates that less than a third of the waste paper produced in Manistee County is recycled through the program. "Yeah," said Amanda Spoor. "There’s still too much going to the landfill."

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