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Recycling pioneer: U-M alumna puts Emmet County on national map as model for cutting waste

RECYCLING HERO TRANSCRIPT

IN 2018, CHINA STOPPED
IMPORTING RECYCLING WASTE,
FORCING THE UNITED STATES
TO SEEK NEW AND BETTER SOLUTIONS

A U-M ALUMNA PIONEERED
A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM
IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN
THAT IS PROVIDING A MODEL
FOR THE REST OF THE COUNTRY

RECYCLING RATE
UNITED STATES: 35%
MICHIGAN: 15%
EMMET COUNTY: 42%

ELISA SELTZER
The national recycling rate right now is about 35%.

The state of Michigan is only 15%.

And Emmet County is at about 42%.

[THIS IS MICHIGAN – EMMET COUNTY – MAP]

ELISA SELTZER
SENIOR CONSULTANT
RESOURCE RECYCLING SYSTEMS
University of Michigan Alumna
School for Environment & Sustainability
The environment is changing faster than we can manage and we have to do these things better, quicker and now.

ELISA SELTZER DEVELOPED A
WASTE AND RECYCLING SYSTEM
THAT PAYS FOR ITSELF

WITHOUT RELYING ON
TAX DOLLARS

KATE MELBY
COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
Emmet County
Department of Public Works
Recycling is sort of a, “if you build it, they will come” kind of situation. People, I think, intuitively get that it makes sense and it feels right to do it, but they have to trust you.

ANDI SHEPHERD
DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC WORKS
EMMET COUNTY

Elisa Seltzer started this whole thing. When she was first here, it was just one little transfer station, so she’s literally built everything from the ground up here.

ELISA SELTZER
We collect over 11,000 tons of materials a year.

What we’re doing is sorting the recyclables to go to the factories that will actually make them into new items.

95% of the materials that we supply from this facility, supply Michigan businesses.

CARLIN SMITH
PRESIDENT, PETOSKEY REGIONAL
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
They’re providing jobs and creating a commodity that they can sell that helps benefit our county.

ELISA SELTZER
They’re able to recycle it and have it go back into the economy.

ANDI SHEPHERD
So it’s a full closed loop.

ELISA SELTZER
My life wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t gone to U-M and ending up at what is now the School for Environment and Sustainability really helped set me on my path.

JONATHAN OVERPECK, PHD
SAMUEL A. GRAHAM DEAN
School for Environment & Sustainability
University of Michigan

This school’s all about how we steward our environment and how

we achieve sustainability and that’s a huge challenge and it’s getting harder and harder. And so some of our alumni like Elisa are just shining examples of what the students can do once they leave this school.

AFTER GETTING HER DEGREE
AT U-M, ELISA TOOK A JOB AT
RECYCLE ANN ARBOR

PART OF THE JOB REQUIRED
HER TO DRIVE A TRUCK,
RUN A FORKLIFT &
OPERATE A BALER TO
COLLECT RECYCLABLES

IN 1990, ELISA SELTZER
WAS HIRED AS THE FIRST
DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC WORKS
IN EMMET COUNTY

ELISA SELTZER
The big job when I started was making the case for recycling in the county. What I drew out was making the connection between people’s love of the environment and being very positive and being very enthusiastic and having a can-do attitude and knowing how to really put the nuts and bolts together. It happened in stages. We designed a recycling facility and bought trucks and hired drivers and started with a drop-off program. Slowly over time, bringing on staff, able to cultivate the team that would help get the work done was really significant.

WITH THE RESIDENTS AND BUSINESSES
PRESORTING RECYCLABLES,
THE FACILITY HAS BEEN ABLE
TO SELL MATERIALS,
BRINGING IN AS MUCH AS
1 MILLION DOLLARS A YEAR
TO FUND THE PROGRAM

CARLIN SMITH
In Petoskey and Emmet County in general, just very proud of this recycling center. They’ve created something that’s now replicated all over.

AFTER 30 YEARS IN EMMET COUNTY,
ELISA IS NOW SHARING HER VALUABLE
KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE WITH OTHERS
AS A SENIOR CONSULTANT FOR
RESOURCE RECYCLING SYSTEMS

ELISA SELTZER
I feel like I’m working with the brightest minds on the most difficult problems in providing real solutions…and U-M gave me that.

Video Produced by Bob Berg, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Kim North Shine

Recycling wasn’t at all the ubiquitous thing it is today when Elisa Seltzer stepped into a collection yard in Ann Arbor for the first time, more than 30 years ago.

University of Michigan alumna Elisa Seltzer, Emmet County's first director of public works

Elisa Seltzer

It was a yard at Recycle Ann Arbor, where after graduating from what is now the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, Seltzer had her first job—a curbside recycling coordinator.

In that job, she worked to spread the word about the benefits and impact of recycling, a one-woman operation for a time. She drove the curbside collection truck, dug through piles with a shovel, sorted them, operated a forklift and handled the baler for the boxes and other paper that was prepared to become something more than landfill waste.

In the process, she was laying the green foundation of a career in an industry where she is now regarded as a pioneer—a career that’s left a trail of benefits and impact on towns she’s touched.

“Petoskey, and Emmet County in general, is just very proud of this recycling center. They’ve created something that’s now replicated all over.”
– Carlin Smith, president, Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce

Seltzer’s reputation as a leader was cemented during her time in Emmet County in northern Michigan, where she was named the first public works director in 1990.

She built a recycling and waste facility that has created jobs and revenue for the county of 33,000 (as much as $1 million a year) as it collects 11,000 tons of materials annually—95% of it supplies Michigan businesses, leaving an impact across the community and state.

Emmet County has a recycling rate of 42%, far above the national average of 35% and the state average of 15%

About 42% of Emmet County’s waste is recycled

The facility has made Emmet County the gold standard when it comes to zero waste and a shining example of how to recycle right.

“Elisa Seltzer started this whole thing,” said Andi Shepherd, current director of Emmet County Public Works. “When she was first here it was just one little transfer station, so she’s literally built everything from the ground up.”

What she built with much collaboration of local leaders and residents went on to become a model for recycling for communities around the country. When she left the job in early 2019, she left Emmet County with an impressive 42% recycling rate. The national average is 35% and Michigan’s is 15%.

The county's recycling system pays for itself, without relying on tax dollars

The county’s recycling system pays for itself

“Petoskey, and Emmet County in general, is just very proud of this recycling center,” said Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce. “They’ve created something that’s now replicated all over. They’re providing jobs and creating a commodity that they can sell and then give back to our economy.”

She won over the locals who could see the benefit and impact that would come from building the facility and promoting recycling and reusing.

“The big job when I started was making a case for recycling in the county,” Seltzer said.

Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce

Carlin Smith

As her experience piled up and the public interest and participation in recycling gained steam, Seltzer began to export knowledge on Emmet’s success to others. Eventually, her expertise led her to leave Emmet and become a senior consultant for Resource Recycling Systems, where she is in a position to help others increase their recycling rates.

Recycling, waste diversion and other ways of limiting waste and repurposing are becoming even more critical since China ceased importing the United States waste, forcing the U.S. to find solutions. Add in concerns over waste’s role in climate change, and communities are faced with big decisions.

“We have to do these things better and quicker and now,” Seltzer said.

While Seltzer, a graduate of what was then the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, is showing others how to do what Emmet did—the impact on Emmet County is still being felt and likely will be for years.

“This school is all about how we steward our environment and how we achieve sustainability, and that’s a huge challenge and it’s getting harder and harder,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

University of Michigan SEAS dean Jonathan Overpeck

Jonathan Overpeck

“And some of our alumni, like Elisa, are just shining examples of what the students can do once they leave this school.”

U-M School for Environment and Sustainability
This Is Michigan

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