Alan Pennington, left, and Bailey Payne, right, at an Earth Day event. (Courtesy/ Bailey Payne)

Years before Alan Pennington became a waste reduction coordinator, he wondered why anyone would want to become a master recycler.

“I just laughed, and I thought… ‘What is with these people?’” Pennington recounted Friday, the day of his retirement after 12 years at the job.

Now, he said the Master Recycler program is indispensable and has taught more than 800 people where garbage and food waste ends up in Marion County since the program started in 1994. People who complete the program go on to volunteer for environmental events and projects.

Looking back at his career, Pennington said he realizes that the waste-reduction efforts have focused too much on recycling and real environmental benefits will come from a broader look at what people throw away.

“Of course, it’s the whole system, Pennington said.  “They learn about where everything goes and hear from people who are part of the industry.”

Pennington said Marion County is in charge of how solid waste is handled and its goal is to reduce the amount of garbage coming in as much as possible.

With long gray hair and a goatee, Pennington is a regular at LifeSource Natural Foods and wouldn’t be out of place at a Grateful Dead concert.

When reached by phone, Bailey Payne, responded giddily when asked about Pennington, his former coworker or the "yin to his yang."

“How much dirt do you want?” Payne exclaimed, jokingly.

He described Pennington as a passionate person who cares deeply about the work he does, albeit with a touch of hijinks.

Payne, who is 47, said years ago Pennington would tell people it was Payne’s 50th birthday and they should do something special for it.

“We had fun, you know, being mildly mischievous,” he said.

Payne said Pennington’s path has been aligned toward helping people. He was a nurse in the Navy, a water quality outreach coordinator for the city of Salem and for much of his life, a Middle School math and science teacher.

He said Pennington’s disarming communication style speaks to and reaches a larger audience, focusing on what each person can do rather than get hung up on what they can’t accomplish.

Some of his audience are those served through the county’s EarthWISE program, which helps businesses learn how to recycle, reduce waste, and save energy and water.

Payne, a sustainability coordinator with Corvallis School District, said Pennington’s disarming communication style has helped him become more relaxed in his approach.

For decades, recycling has held nearly religious importance for environmental advocates. In recent years, the way the U.S. recycles has come under scrutiny. China, a huge market for recyclable commodities has begun rejecting bales of imported recyclables because of high contamination. In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic from the United States partly because people weren’t recycling properly and sending contaminated plastic that couldn’t be recycled.

Pennington said the county was focused on recycling for many years and the “realities of that all came to forefront when China said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to take your recycling anymore.”

“We’re changing our scope to quit focusing so much on recycling and looking more toward waste reduction,” Pennington said.

He helps the county’s efforts to encourage the public to opt for reusable water bottles and and to bring a reusable bag to the grocery store.

“Just things like that and trying to get away from disposables,” he said. “The campaign has been based around that.”

Pennington said the county tries to reach people through social media, and there’s one demographic who the messaging resonates with that everyone on Pennington’s team was surprised by — 40-year-old men.

In the office they joke that recycling is a gateway drug to environmental action, Pennington said.

He said that’s because recycling is politically neutral and most people are proud if they do it, even if they’re doing it improperly.

People talking to the county’s Environmental Services staff at events like Earth Day or the Salem Art Fair were often really interested in what types of items they can recycle or throw in yard debris bins for compost, Pennington said.

“You’d see their eyes light up and they’d go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this,’” he said. “They didn’t need a TV ad or a newspaper or something. They needed to have somebody tell them that.”

Alan Pennington is retiring as waste reduction coordinator after 12 years working for the county. (Courtesy/Alan Pennington)

Jessica Ramey, who used to work as a waste reduction coordinator and now runs the Art Department downtown, said Pennington is a born teacher.

She said he bridges his science background while talking to people about reducing waste and the environment.

“He’s one of those people that everybody kind of knows and likes and is just a personable person,” Ramey said.

One of Pennington’s focuses has been reducing food waste, which accounts for a quarter of Marion County’s residential garbage. Countywide, food waste accounts for nearly a third of all garbage.

In 2010, the county started allowing residents to put their food scraps into their yard debris bins.

It’s a program some people are still unaware of. The scraps are composted and either taken to a facility north of Corvallis or one in Aumsville.

Pennington said reducing waste is a better focus than recycling, because even if all the plastic bottles that could be recycled were, it would only reduce the greenhouse gas impacts from them by 6%.

“It’s not a lot, it’s not pushing the needle very far when you’re talking about climate change,” he said.

Now, someone else will have to fill the role of telling people how to cut down on garbage.

Payne sent Pennington an email on his last day, telling him he had a career to be proud of.

“You’ll never have trouble sleeping at night knowing your whole career was based on helping people,” he wrote. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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