For Jeanette Brizendine, garbage equals fun.
Yes, she knows this makes her “weird.” But as the solid waste and recycling project manager for the City of Federal Way, it’s her job.
Brizendine didn’t always know this was her calling.
She was brought up to live a green lifestyle, but after college she went to work in a human resources office so she could encourage others to make a living doing what they loved. Then she met a job coach who told her to take her own advice.
She started with the city six years ago and has implemented an array of creative programs, workshops and contests that led the Washington State Recycling Association to honor her this year as the Individual Recycler of the Year.
Just ask her about the Recycle Palooza Contest (complete with cash prizes and a street fair) or the Family Green Fest that attracts more than 1,250 people every year.
Question: Recycling isn’t exactly what people think about when they think about fun. What makes it fun for you?
Answer: I love two things about recycling. I love giving things a new life. It seems so sad when things go to their final resting place. On a weird side, I like the sorting and having everything organized and going in its own place. We have so much serious matter in our life, I knew I needed to make it fun, make it something people want to do. I want to inspire people to make them want to do it rather than tell them they have to.
Q: Did your family ingrain recycling into you as a child, or did you fall in love all on your own?
A: My family did ingrain it in me. We didn’t have a whole lot of money growing up so we did all those “green” things. We recycled, we grew our own food, we composted, we line-dried our clothes. It was just how we did things. It made sense to me. But I also love it and am passionate about it. It really resonates with me.
Q: I understand your dedication to recycling means some of your chickens have become local stars?
A: Yes! The city passed an ordinance that it’s OK to have backyard chickens, so we had a workshop because I knew we needed to teach people how to pet chickens, what to feed them. I brought in Mary Poopins and Goldie Hen, they were my two quietest. It was a last-minute decision. I couldn’t find anybody to bring tame chickens, so my chickens came to work. They just hung out during the workshop and I took them home afterward and put them to bed.
Q: Why do you think recycling is so important?
A: If you shift your thinking away from recycling being garbage, it’s a resource just like money or anything else. When you throw it away, we lose that resource and we have to go find it somewhere else. Like a watermelon rind. One of my favorite things to say is a rind is a terrible thing to waste. It’s a commodity that’s being wasted if it’s thrown away. It can make wonderful compost for the soil.
Q: How do you make this fun for people?
A: I try to put something fun in all my materials. I’ll be honest, sometimes recycling is gross and you have to acknowledge that. But I use humor in things and share the why. We’re not children, people want to know why we’re supposed to do something.
Q: How do you feel about being nicknamed the Queen of Styrofoam, and how did you earn that moniker?
A: Styrofoam was one of those materials people don’t like to get rid of – it doesn’t break down, little pieces go everywhere. I found a company in Renton that recycles and was so excited to tell people but people didn’t want to drive that far. So I set up a post-holiday collection event in the City Hall parking lot where people can drop it off. We get so much Styrofoam. Last year we got 75 cubic yards. That’s about 150 yard-waste carts. In three weeks.
Q: OK, tell me a wacky recycling story.
A: I was putting together gift baskets with mugs, pens, pencils and I had them sitting out. The janitor thought it was recycling, so he dumped it. I had to jump in the recycling bin to get recycled items meant for a gift basket.
Q: What do you say to the recycling skeptics out there?
A: You have the freedom of choice. You don’t have to recycle if you don’t want to. It’s a great thing, and there are millions who believe in it, but if it’s not right for you right now, that’s OK. I’m going to be here for the people who want to learn more, who want to do more and for the people who are skeptics. No judgment.