South Whidbey man is state's top recycler

"It’s taken 10 years for Sego Jackson to get 583,000 people to think about their garbage. Really think, and to get it to go to anywhere but a landfill.Jackson, a Clinton resident and principal planner for Snohomish County’s solid waste management division, has the people in the state’s third largest county recycling in both town and country and is starting programs to build environmentally-friendly homes, to beef up residential soils with compost, and to make livestock waste pay off for Snohomish County farmers. For all of this, Jackson received this year’s “Recycler of the Year” award from the Washington State Recycling Association last month.The honors don’t get any higher for recyclers. Happy to receive it, Jackson splits the credit for Snohomish County’s waste management program with all the other people in his department. “It’s a very big deal. But it should have been recycling network of the year,” he said.One visit to Jackson’s home is enough to convince anyone that he is a man obsessed with reducing humanity’s wasteful treatment of trash. Alongside his driveway are half a dozen piles of wood chips and yard waste, decomposing so fast that they produce their own heat and steam. Near the garden, Jackson tests several types of consumer composting devices — plastic and wood barrels and boxes designed to be pest-proof but friendly to the bacteria and insects that aid decomposition.If you manage to find a garbage can outside or inside the house, don’t expect to find even a tiny scrap of aluminum foil mixed in with non-recyclables. If it can be used again, it’s in the recycling bin.That is the mantra Jackson has been helping Snohomish County residents live by. Ten years ago, the county got the waste-reduction ball rolling by giving out curbside recycling bins to all city and rural residents in the county. Right now, county residents recycle about 45 percent of all the waste they create. Given a little more time and education, Jackson said 65 percent is not unreasonable. “I don’t think it takes very much time to recycle,” he said. “It’s so simplistic.”Unfortunately, Americans are consuming — and throwing away — more things than they ever have. So in addition to promoting recycling, Jackson said his department also needs to find a way to convince county residents to buy and use less of everything.“It’s partly because we’re rabid consumers, and because our great economy is spurring us on,” he said.But in Snohomish County, curbside recycling is old news. Jackson and other county solid waste professionals are making policy and practical solutions for other waste problems. In the area of agricultural waste, the county is helping farmers turn hundreds of thousands of tons of animal waste into complete composts that can be sold for slightly more than it costs to make them. One farm did this with about 15,000 tons of waste last year, making money on a byproduct that used to be a liability.Eventually, farmers may make more money off their compost, if Jackson can push a new development regulation through that would require developers to add large quantities of compost to soil in new housing and business developments.By requiring these compost-amended soils in development areas — which are often stripped of their topsoils long before buildings go up — Jackson said the county will both reduce runoff problems and save property owners thousands of dollars they would otherwise spend on fertilizer, water, and yard maintenance. Because compost-amended soils are so absorbent, they hold water rather than allowing it to run off. That held water, plus the high nutrient content of such soils, will keep lawns greener and will allow trees and other plants to thrive.“We need this stuff in our soils,” Jackson said.Jackson’s most ambitious project — which is still a year or two in the making — is his work to force the computer and electronic industries to recycle their own obsolete products. As personal computers get bigger, better and faster, the computer industry is creating a toxic and solid waste nightmare, Jackson said. In basements, closets, back rooms and offices across the country there are millions of obsolete computers sitting dark and useless. About 315 million of them are expected to begin flooding into the solid waste stream by 2004. Their owners hang onto them long after they have been replaced by something newer and better, Jackson said, because those computer owners paid big money at one time for those old hulks. Jackson did the same a few years ago.“But now my computer is too slow to run the latest software,” he writes in a yet-to-be-published paper. “I now own a $2,500 doorstop.”Eventually, those people will feel ready to throw out the old machines. And in 49 of the United States, old computers can go right into the garbage (Massachusetts is the only exception, having banned computer monitors and television sets from landfills).This is bad, Jackson said, because computer monitors contain about five pounds of lead, while the plastics used to make computer components can contain any number of unknown toxins — unknown because computer companies do not want to release any information about their products that might be proprietary.And that is just fine, Jackson said, as long those companies are ready to take their old products back and recycle them. European computer companies are already held to this standard. It is only a matter of time before U.S. companies and their retailers face the same reality.“It’s going to happen here,” Jackson said. “And the result will be more recyclable, less toxic and more upgradable machines.”If there is anything he regrets about his job with Snohomish County, it is the fact that it takes him away from work he could do to help Whidbey Island deal with its waste stream. Jackson does what he can as a member of the Island County Water Resources Advisory Committee, and is an advisor for the Maxwelton Salmon Adventure. “The water resources board keeps me focused here,” he said. "

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