Ten Years of Blueberry Recycling: A Reflection

Contributed photo
Marianne Peters
Contributing writer

The Marshall County Blueberry Festival has been recycling now for ten years. It is business as usual – just part of the waste management plan of this huge event.

Over 60 TONS of recyclables have been diverted from County Line Landfill.

Volunteers of all ages have served on the Green Team, a merry band of community members who check the bins for contamination and hand out stickers to people they “catch” recycling. A few volunteers have helped every single year -- including me.

In 2008 I was a stay-at-home writer-mom raising an 8 and a 12-year-old daughter.

I was hanging out at the Plymouth Public Library -- as I often did in those days -- when I saw Randy Bowser, then President of the Blueberry Board, coming toward me. I didn’t know Randy well, but he radiated warmth and enthusiasm. After a little small talk, he asked me if I would be interested in coordinating recycling at the Festival.

I’d been writing a column about green living for about a year. Always kind of a nature girl, environmental sustainability was a passion of mine. But coordinate recycling for the state’s largest four-day festival? I had never done anything like that before. Feeling terrified, I said no.

That was the only conversation I ever had with Randy. Not long after that single encounter, I opened the paper one day and stared in shock at the obituaries. Randy Bowser had died suddenly of a heart attack. I was filled with intense regret. I wished I’d gotten to know him. And then I knew – we had to carry out Randy’s vision for a greener event.

It truly took a village to launch the Blueberry recycling program. The Festival Coordinator and Board embraced the recycling effort. The waste hauler helped us set up separate dumpsters for recycling and regular trash and provided weights so we would know how we did. About twenty people signed up for the Green Team. The Marshall County Solid Waste District provided crucial expertise, a booth, and t-shirts and aprons for the volunteers.

That first year, we learned lessons about event recycling that we still apply at Blueberry. The First Rule of Recycling: Make It Convenient. Put the recycling bin next to a trash can. Not five feet away – right next to the can. We discovered right away that busy, distracted patrons will use whatever receptacle is nearest to dispose of their waste. They’ll do the right thing if the right thing is convenient (wouldn’t you, if you were at a crowded festival?). Having a one-to-one relationship between trash cans and recycling bins is ideal.

We learned that turkey legs and corncobs fit through the holes on the top of the recycle bins. (Our volunteers wear gloves!). Contamination in recycle bins can send that whole load to the landfill. Over the years, though, Festival patrons have contaminated less and less as recycling has become more commonplace everywhere, and we’ve been smarter about signs and bin placement.

We learned that people know very little about their trash, incredible considering how much we make. The Blueberry Festival, as we found out that first year, contributes around 30 tons of trash to County Line Landfill annually. Does that mean we shouldn’t have the event? Or does it mean we should just try to have an event that makes less of an impact on the environment? There’s still so much we could do to make the event even greener, such as encourage vendors to stop using Styrofoam and divert the food waste to a compost facility.

We learned that other festivals wanted our expertise, even a few in South Bend. Blueberry has had an impact!

As for me, I learned that I am fascinated by waste management. I was disturbed by this strange obsession at first, but finally I gave in and began to explore the topic in greater depth. Now, ten years later, it’s my full-time job -- a pretty good gig for an English major, I always say.

One final lesson: if someone asks for your help, just say yes the first time. Even if you’re terrified.