Tackling Utah’s trash

  • Recycling bin at a farm near Logan, Utah

  • Issa Hamud set up the program that recycles more than 20 percent of Logan's waste into products like insulation for houses


NAME Issa Hamud

AGE 48

HOME LIFE Married, eight kids.

DRIVES 2004 Ford F-150.

HOBBY Four-wheeling with friends.

NEXT PROJECT Hamud hopes to build an Environmental Education Center on the site of the current landfill once it closes. It will feature a glass wall exposing a cross section of the landfill to its 30-foot depths, and will be a monument to what he calls "the disposal culture of the community."

ON PREVAILING ATTITUDES IN UTAH "It's a plastic country. Plentiful. But the people are wasteful. It gives me a different perspective. Maybe we need some shortage ... just kidding.

The sun has not yet risen over the Bear River Range, but Issa Hamud is already up, wheeling two bins, one black, one blue, down the driveway past his oversized off-road vehicle. His tie is straight; his shoes shine. He smiles to himself: It is collection day.

Almost 100,000 people live in northern Utah's Cache Valley: 71 percent of them are Mormon, 80 percent Republican and 92 percent white. One might expect to find one of them running the city's multimillion-dollar Environmental Department and its successful recycling program for Logan, the valley's largest city. Instead, the director is Issa Hamud, a Muslim from Somalia.

He came to Utah State University in 1988 to learn irrigation management. Meanwhile, Somalia disintegrated into anarchy. Unable to return, Hamud piled up engineering degrees and went to work for the city of Logan. He rose through the ranks as a volunteer, an intern, then an engineer. When the environmental director died in December of 2000, the mayor appointed Hamud to replace him.

Thanks in part to rapid growth in the mountain-ringed valley, the county's only landfill neared capacity in the 1990s. The push was on to find a site for a new one and to divert some of the waste through recycling.

The problem: Westerners don't do recycling. According to the journal BioCycle, Utah recycled only 4 percent of its municipal waste in 2002. Due in part to Logan's efforts, Utah's numbers have improved to 14.2 percent (about half the national average). Meanwhile Idaho, Wyoming, and New Mexico still recycle less than 10 percent of their waste - a dismal total compared to the nation's greener states, which recycle more than 40 percent of theirs. Hamud remembers the resistance he encountered when the city first attempted to initiate a recycling program in 1997. People were very proud of their beautiful valley, and did not see any problem with their waste-disposal habits.

To convince skeptical Utahns to recycle, Hamud drew on his experiences in Somalia, where he coaxed subsistence farmers to change centuries-old practices one farm at a time, using on-the-ground demonstrations. Once farmers saw the benefits of change firsthand, they were convinced, and often converted their neighbors. In Cache Valley, Hamud enrolled about 1,500 volunteers in a pilot curbside program, consulted his citizens' advisory committee, commissioned studies and held countless public meetings.

Nine years later, armed with evidence that the public was willing to recycle and even pay to do so, Hamud asked the County Council to require curbside recycling. Some responded with enthusiasm, but others objected loudly to the $7 million to $10 million price tag. Unfazed, Hamud brought the discussion back to the larger issue: "There are some values that you cannot put into dollars," he says. "If everybody wastes as much as they can, then our kids and their kids will pay the price."

In April 2006, the Cache County Council approved curbside recycling, on a 5-2 vote. The morning after the vote, Hamud woke to find his garbage can overturned, its contents strewn across his driveway. On the editorial page of the local paper, he was denounced as an "all-knowing do-gooder" who was "forcing his religion" on the community. Five south-valley mayors tried to find an alternative waste collector so they could leave Logan's Service District. Hamud, however, remained calm. He steadfastly pointed to the research and waited for the people to act.

They acted. The first week of the program, 90 percent of them dragged their blue recycling bins to the curb for collection. Today, the company that does the sorting blows insulation made from recycled paper and cardboard into the attics of Cache Valley homes.

Hamud is not surprised. "I expect our program to be much more successful ... because we debated," he says. "We had the studies, and the background information that determined that people really want to do it." Some engineers build bridges. This one built a new mindset.

The author writes from Richmond, Utah.

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