Recycling activists Donna Gibson and Michael Superson reduce waste by changing behavior

Dec 4 2013

Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 4, 2013. By Gena Mangiaratti

Environmental activist Donna Gibson finds it hard to change people’s behavior.

This is why in the late 1980s she came up with the idea for a “commercial break” at a spring Town Meeting to educate as many of her fellow Williamsburg residents as possible about what items they should start recycling.

“I had to do some kind of announcement. I wanted to be sure to get their attention” as the town was preparing to establish a recycling center, Gibson recalled.

She briefly left the meeting, and returned as “Phantom of the Landfill,” wearing black tights and a black trash bag filled with cans so she would “rattle,” Gibson said. To illustrate what kind of items could be recycled, Gibson carried a separate trash bag with a rope coming out of it. She had someone in the front row grab the rope as she walked backward, revealing bottles, glass, plastic and other recyclables that hung along it like on a clothesline.

“It was a visual show and tell,” she said.

In the decades since, Gibson, 68, who is chairwoman of the Williamsburg Board of Health, has kept up with her activism, as well as personal efforts to reduce trash.

Last month, Gibson was one of two Hampshire County residents — along with Big E’s Supermarket co-owner Michael Superson — who were presented “Outstanding Recycler of the Year” awards at the annual “America Recycles Day” celebration breakfast at the Delaney House in Holyoke.

She was recognized for her 25 years of service on the Board of Health, during which she played a main role in establishing the Williamsburg Recycling Center, and 20 years of service on the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative, which was formed in 1989 by residents of 10 towns looking to reduce the costs of waste disposal.

Gibson, who works part-time as a psychiatric nurse in the community crisis stabilization unit at the Mount Tom Mental Health Clinic in Holyoke, stepped down from her position on the cooperative because, she said, “I wanted other people to have the experience, and I wanted the board to have some fresh ideas.”

Still, she regularly attends the meetings. “I’m still interested in it. It’s a fascinating topic,” said Gibson.

Eric Weiss, who is administrator of the cooperative and has known Gibson since the mid-1980s, describes her as one of the area’s “biggest advocates of recycling for a long time.”

“I’m just always amazed at her dedication to the cause. I’ve relied on it over the years,” said Weiss, who is also chairman of the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility Advisory Board, host of the “America Recycles Day” celebration.

Big E’s composting

Superson, who lives in Southampton, received his award for working with Green Business Services, a Northampton-based department of the Center for EcoTechnology, to set up a composting program at his supermarket on Union Street in Easthampton. He co-owns the store with Judi LeBel of South Hadley.

Superson, 55, whose business has operated a recycling program for cardboard and plastic for more than 20 years, was approached by Sean Pontani, a manager for Green Business Services, in the spring of 2011 with the idea of adding a composting program for food waste. One of the first steps Pontani took was showing Superson an estimate of how much food waste was produced at the establishment.

“It was almost like a ‘wow’ moment, really,” Superson said.

Big E’s composting program was up and running by September 2012, and the supermarket sent about 80 tons of food waste in the first year to be composted at Martin’s Farm in Greenfield that normally would have gone to a landfill, Superson said.

Pontani said Green Business Services has been seeking businesses that will be affected by a ban of the disposal of organic material which the state Department of Environmental Protection plans to impose in July 2014. It will affect any institution that produces more than a ton per week of organic material needing disposal. Other establishments Green Business Services has worked with to set up composting programs include Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and Lathrop Retirement Communities in Easthampton.

Superson said at least half of some 80 full- and part-time employees at Big E’s take part in the composting efforts. When produce expires, it is ripped out of its package and put into a compost bin. The same is done to trimmings from cabbage and deli meat.

“It has become such a part of our everyday routine,” Superson said. He said he did not have to hire any additional staff when he began composting, and describes the added labor as minimal.

As for Gibson, she takes her work in the public sector home as the effort to reduce the amount of trash she produces in her everyday life has become a personal challenge. She tests how many times she can use the same item before throwing it out, such as using the other side of mail for scrap paper and rinsing out plastic bags for re-use.

At the same time, Gibson said, she avoids buying new items. “I’m not a shopper,” she added. “I have a tendency to make stuff myself.”

She has used rug scraps to make floor mats for her car, as well as to make a cat scratching post. She made earrings out of the brilliant colored feathers that fell off a co-worker’s tropical birds. This Halloween, she dressed as a pineapple and used a tomato cage to make the leaves stand up off her shoulders.

She referred to an apron worn by fellow recycling advocate Mary McClintock of Conway at the “America Recycles Day” celebration that read, “It’s not garbage til you throw it away,” and said that is her approach with every item she uses.

“We throw so much away,” Gibson added.

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