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The “Father of Recycling” Has a Message For You

Erin Grace Scottberg  /  March 26, 2020  /  6 Min Read  /  Our Footprint

Donald Sanderson launched the country’s first mandatory curbside recycling program in Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1980. The recycling landscape has since changed. A lot. Is it still worthwhile?

Donald Sanderson, otherwise known as the "father of recycling," hauls a blue bin to the curb outside his home in Woodbury, N.J. Erin Scottberg

When Donald Sanderson, then a city council member in the southern New Jersey town of Woodbury, located just outside Philadelphia, introduced the idea of mandatory curbside recycling to his community in the late ’70s, it was not well-received.

“People dumped trash in my yard,” recalls Don with a laugh as he sits in the living room of his cozy, single-story Woodbury home, just down the street from the house he’s referring to (the family moved years ago). And yes, there are three recycling bins neatly lined up outside the back door. “They were angry. ‘What right did I have to tell them what to do with the trash?’ they wanted to know. Well, I’ll tell you what right I had. In the state of New Jersey, once you put your trash on the curb, it’s not your property anymore—you relinquish it to the municipality. That’s why I had the authority to do this. And I knew I was doing the right thing.”

Now 90 years old, Don talks with an animated but measured pace that doesn’t so much belie his age as demonstrate his decades of experience explaining things to people. After all, the man was in politics for 30 years, starting as a city councilman in 1972 and then council president in 1981, and ultimately elected mayor of Woodbury in 1994, a position he held for eight years. Dressed in a white cotton polo shirt and plaid shorts and wearing a welcoming smile, Don recalls the months between the city’s announcement on December 23, 1979, of a new ordinance requiring residents to separate their recyclables for curbside pickup and when it went into effect the following February. “There wasn’t a day during that six-week period when my name wasn’t in the paper negatively.”

Logical and even-keeled, Don understood the frustration. Woodbury residents weren’t strangers to recycling—it’s something that the councilman had been slowly introducing since his early days in government. Five years prior to the ordinance, Don’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Hagerman, a local Girl Scout troop leader, came to him with a request: Her scouts wanted to set up bins to collect recyclables (paper, cardboard, colored and clear glass, ferrous materials, and nonferrous materials) at the local ACME Market, and they needed his help. The second-year councilman made it happen. That program was so well-received that it led to the introduction of voluntary curbside paper and cardboard pickup starting in 1978 (also Don’s doing). But mandatory? And all materials? That was a different story. Nobody had heard of such a program—likely because there wasn’t anything like it anywhere else in the country. The idea of being required to put so many different bins on your front lawn (so cluttered!), displaying all your trash for all the neighbors to see? Well, that was not an appealing scenario for most folks. “A lot of people didn’t like that neighbors could see all the liquor bottles in your trash,” says Judy Sanderson, Don’s high school sweetheart and wife of 65 years.

But Don saw curbside pickup as a solution. The landfill where Woodbury had been bringing their garbage was near capacity and would be closing in the next few years, and the next best option was in the middle of central Pennsylvania. It would have been incredibly costly and time-consuming to haul the city’s trash all the way out there. But the councilmember knew how to get people on board. “I held a public meeting in the high school auditorium and showed a slideshow about the recycling plan. But the first slide? That was the city budget. Once the residents saw how much money it cost to dump our trash into landfills, and how much they could save by recycling it, I won them over,” recalls Don with glee. “Money talks.”

That’s how America’s first mandatory curbside recycling program came to be. It was the first program of its kind in the nation—if not the world. Don, a lifelong resident of Woodbury, is often called the “father of recycling,” a title that he’s quick to shrug off. “I’m not one for lionization” he says. “What I did will be known by the man upstairs.” The lofty nickname makes Judy Sanderson chuckle, too. “We’re children of the Depression,” she explains. “Growing up, we always recycled things. You didn’t have a lot to throw away.” The couple begin to reminisce about the scrap metal drives their communities organized during World War II, when they were middle schoolers. “I remember even saving the tin foil from my gum wrappers,” says Judy, miming the process of unwrapping a stick of gum and putting the waste in her pocket. “The government used them for bullets.”

Within three months, Woodury’s recycling program had an 85 percent compliance rate. Within four months, it had made enough money to fund the purchase of a new recycling truck. Don had it painted with the words “This truck was purchased with your donations of recycled materials.” It wasn’t long before other cities in New Jersey came calling, looking to learn more about what was going on downstate. Don, who became president of the city council in 1981, took his slideshow on the road.

With the help of Judy Sanderson, Hagerman, and Woodbury’s superintendent of utilities, the council president wrote a book called The Woodbury Way, which outlined how to operate a curbside recycling program. The book was free to anyone interested—recipients just had to pay $0.35 to cover the postage. Don spoke to 360 municipalities across New Jersey in those first couple of years. Soon, he was hearing from other states, and not that long after, he started getting calls from municipalities in France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Finland.

Today’s Recycling Landscape Looks a Lot Different—Is It Still Worth It?

It’s now nearly 40 years after Woodbury first required its residents to separate their trash, and the recycling landscape has changed quite a bit. Nowadays, curbside pickup is the norm, but recent news has many wondering what good it’s doing. The reality is that in 2015, only 34.7 percent of our municipal solid waste was recycled and composted, the rest ended up in landfills or was burned for energy creation. And given that we can no longer outsource our recycling to countries like China, that number is likely much lower today.

But the “father of recycling” hasn’t given up, and he has some thoughts on how to get our nation’s recycling programs back on track.

“There has to be government intervention, you have to require things,” says Don, who’d like to see laws mandating that only easily recyclable materials be allowed to be manufactured. “If you can’t recycle it, you can’t produce it.” It’s an idea that’s catching on. In California, a state long considered a bellwether of sustainability practices, a pair of bills were recently introduced that would have required manufacturers of some of plastic’s worst offenders (e.g., single-use utensils and beverage lids) make their products recyclable or compostable. The legislative session ended with lawmakers punting on the vote, in part due to lobbying against the bills by manufacturers, though concern that California’s recycling infrastructure couldn’t support the new regulations also played a role. This brings us to Don’s second point: He’d also like to see the US strengthen our domestic remanufacturing capabilities. “We have to find more ways to use these [plastic] materials. There must be incentives from the government to build plants that can remanufacture plastics,” he says.

On this point, Heather Tierney, Don’s daughter, who has followed in her father’s footsteps and now sits on the Woodbury City Council herself, agrees. “Recycling is bent, but not broken. We need to look at the whole system—from reducing production, to encouraging reuse, to improving recycling,” she explains with the same passion as her father. “Changing behavior in our society is not easy. I saw firsthand how the first mandatory recycling ordinance in Woodbury brought out the worst in people. But, I also saw how a small group of dedicated citizens started a national movement to change our planet for the better.”

For Don, public education was crucial to establishing a working recycling program in Woodbury, from transparency in the city budgets to get residents on board to teaching people how to recycle correctly. He wants to see more of that today. “But it’s not just about teaching recycling, it’s about convincing people to change their habits,” he says. “That’s the hardest thing about recycling: changing habits. We have to be willing to do things differently, even if it’s harder or not as convenient at first. But it won’t always be harder. The more you do something, the more normal it becomes. I don’t mean to brag, but I know what we did in Woodbury—people got on board. And so did a lot of other places. I’m optimistic we’ll find a way to get recycling back on track.”

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