#Throwback Thursday: 40 Years of Curbside Recycling in Seattle

Solid Ground hosted nation’s first home collection out of Fremont
| Updated: November 27, 2018

When an East Coast friend of mine recently moved here to work for a prominent, Seattle-based nonprofit, he was tossing what he considered trash at his new office when a coworker shook her head.

"That's a real quick way to make enemies here."

In a city where we are now fined for sending food scraps to the landfill instead of compost, we recognize this attitude intimately--even affectionately--and it's hard to remember when Seattle wasn't stocked with recycling and compost receptacles at the airport, in schools and in most bus-your-own-table eateries. 

This Throwback Thursday, we kick back 40 years to the man Crosscut and others have labeled Seattle's Godfather of Recycling--and the curbside recycling program he launched that eventually replicated nationwide.

Armen Stepanian, a former carpenter, actor and founding member of Fremont Public Association (now Solid Ground), first pressed the city into recycling in 1973 when he made it the theme of the Fremont Fair. According to Crosscut, Stepanian encouraged guests to bring their aluminum, newspaper, tin and other recyclables to a booth at the fair, and eventually set up Fremont Recycling Center No. 1 (on 34th Street near the current Burke Building), hopeful that more would follow.

In the fall of 1975, Stepanian bolstered his effort to offer curbside recycling to 65 homes. In the program’s first take, neighbors along a Fremont-Wallingford-Ballard route were invited to place sorted green bottles, brown bottles, paper and cans in front of their homes for pick up by a Fremont Public Association-funded white Chevy van once a month. Eventually, the route expanded to include 500 homes.

Though the program started small, it was savvy: Stepanian and other founders ensured they picked up in the neighborhoods of each Seattle City Council member and the mayor, and the Fremont Public Association Board helped staff the endeavor with youth from the juvenile justice system who needed community service.

Passionate about energy conservation, the legendary Stepanian--who was elected an honorary mayor of Fremont in the 1970s (defeating two dogs and a tavern owner) and, according to Crosscut, has been called "Zeus-like" and a “bull in a China shop”--started the program because he was (still is) distressed by the significant oil required to produce commodities.

"Look at the energy it takes to mine all that material [in the things we use]," he says. Inspired by texts like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, he knew recycling provided for a much more efficient use of energy--such as with the aluminum can, which he says can be recreated from 95 percent recycled matter.

"Isn't that beautiful?" he asks.

Eventually the city caught on, and in 1988 they finally took over and brought recycling to scale for the whole community. Seattle's model then rippled out across the country.

Stepanian eventually moved to Illinois to support recycling there, and today he is based in Ocean Shores (Fremont is too expensive) with his wife where, in his 80s, he continues to advocate for energy reduction strategies.

Stepanian at a Solid Ground Voices of Community event in May 2014; photo courtesy of Solid Ground

Are we surprised that, via this man, Seattle was the first in the country (to Buchman's knowledge) to offer curbside recycling? We know we're fiercely green and, yes, the center of the universe, but still.

According to Buchman, it was a natural development here. Take “environmental ethic combined with [the] take-care-of-it-ourselvesness of NW pioneers," he starts, "multiplied by Fremont Public Assocation’s entrepreneurial hippie optimism..." Throw in a wildly devoted leader, and voila.

There is, however, still work to do: in October, CBS reported that the city recycles about 55 percent of its garbage and is aiming for 60 percent. They are hoping the $1 fine to go into effect this summer will provide some incentive to do the right thing--and not miss the appropriate bin.