It was the year after graduation, and Tara Pike was driving her go-kart against the wind, pulling a giant bin filled with a day’s worth of used paper. She made a hard left turn, and the bin, teetering on its side, took a hard right to the ground. A snowstorm of paper whirled around her. It was stuck in bushes, and blowing down the street.
“I just sat down and cried,” Pike says. “But then I jumped up! I’ve got to get it! I can’t litter!” She ran down the sidewalk, and pleaded with everyone and anyone to help her collect it. In a way, that’s what she’s been doing all along.
In the mid-1990s Pike was an undergraduate in UNLV’s environmental sciences program. Her thesis project (environmental sciences undergrads have a thesis requirement), titled “The Feasibility of an Improved Recycling Program,” was freshly inked with an A. It had taken her three and a half years to complete, and it involved countless Dumpster dives and bruised egos.
Today, she’s the head of Rebel Recycling, UNLV’s recycling program, which she helped create.
“Talk about a student making a difference,” says Ron Smith, Pike’s undergraduate advisor. “She’s so persistent, so committed.” The fall after her graduation, Pike and Smith got together as a team and took Pike’s thesis proposal—tacking on a $1 fee at registration to support a new recycling program—to the Board of Regents in Carson City.
“She came to me with that proposal, and I thought it was the right thing to do, it was the right cause.” Smith says it didn’t take much to convince the Board, which approved the proposal nearly unanimously. “They didn’t even flinch,” he says.
It’s been a long road for Pike, who was determined to see her vision of an improved recycling program for UNLV through at any cost. Though now she has a crew of full-time employees and work-study students, on many hot days before the bathrooms and the hired help came along, Pike single-handedly took care of the recycling for UNLV’s entire campus. The heavy toters—large recycling bins—had no wheels, so she had to drag them by hand to her go-kart, which was provided by the university. Sometimes flu-ridden, she’d puke behind Dumpsters while sorting cardboard from plastic.
“I was working all day,” she says. “It was summer of ’97. I was hot, sweaty and tired—and I went into my boss’ office. He had this really nice, big office with air conditioning. And I laid down on the floor and said, ‘If you don’t give me a building I am going to quit.’” She laughs, “It was kind of funny.”
That same year, the problems kept coming. In Pike’s words, “All hell broke loose.” Her program was blackballed by Silver State Recycling when she began recycling cardboard with another company. Pike was forced to remove all of the toters from the campus.
This is what she writes on the program’s webpage, under the heading “History of Rebel Recycling.” In part, it reads: “In March, Silver State decides to discontinue the UNLV recycling program. The Rebel Recycling Program leaped into action and developed an in-house program. The beginning was very rough and chaotic.”
Pike’s plan to sell her own toters to campus departments worked. And salvation was right around the corner—in the form of a defunct fish lab.
“Once they found out I wasn’t going anywhere, they gave me this place,” Pike says of the Rebel Recycling yard at Swenson and Flamingo. “But first I had to clean it.”
Gary, her first full-time employee, who also suffered from heatstroke and fevers, remembers it well.
“When I first came over here it was a horrible mess—not because [Pike] wasn’t doing her job, but because she couldn’t do it all. She just couldn’t do everything.
“I have a wonderful boss who has her heart in her job; you couldn’t ask for more. [She did it] all on her own; nobody helped her,” he says. “I’ve been all over the West, and everywhere I go recycling is big. Here it’s mind-boggling that it is that way. Bless her heart, she has really made people in the area think about how important recycling is.”
Most of Rebel Recycling’s employees are UNLV custodians on light duty after being hurt on the job, community service workers, volunteers and work-study students. All told, there are five full-time employees, nine student workers and an average of six volunteers a day.
Near Pike’s offices, two double-wide trailers on the site of the old UNLV fish hatchery, forklifts transport tons of coffee cups, empty plastic bottles, paper and other recyclables deposited by faculty and students into more than 500 bins around campus. High-tech hoppers buzz while the material is squished into bales that look like little blocks of a mixed-media art project.
Walking through the outdoor yard now with Pike, you can see how grassroots organizations grow from the ground up. Literally.
“That was the only shade,” she says, pointing to a single mesquite tree, as workers sort beneath it. “I’m making [UNLV] dig up that tree. I’m taking it with me.”
UNLV will someday move Rebel Recycling to make way for INNovation village, a training center for the hospitality program. A UNLV spokesperson says that although Rebel Recycling isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, they are currently reviewing alternate sites, and may build Rebel Recycling “a permanent structure rather than the trailers,” which is budget-dependent.
In the meantime, Pike has established programs like CUPPS (Cannot Use Paper, Plastic or Styrofoam), which aims to reduce the amount of disposable cups being used, and ROSE, a reusable office supply exchange.
“The recycling passion got going when I went to college and picked my field and realized these are reusable commodities that can be taken and turned into something else,” Pike says. But being a maverick is tough, she says. “I get frustrated—the logic—to me it makes perfect sense. To me, it’s a commodity, a resource—to some, it’s trash. This plastic bottle is full of petroleum; paper is pulp.”
Pike also sits on the recycling pilot-program committee, helping Republic Services, Clark County’s current waste-management company, and Clark County residents discover ways to recycle more of our valley’s trash. The problem, she says, is that we have an endless capacity to store it.
“Good recycling programs have landfill problems,” she says. Nevada doesn’t.
Everything Pike sees is reused or rehabilitated—and the rebel recycler has blazed a trail for Clark County to follow. “I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. This program is my firstborn child. She [turned] 13 in July.”
Rebel Recycling recycles about 700 tons—or about 30 shipping containers—of corrugated cardboard each year. According to the Rebel Recycling webpage, between 2003 and 2006 recycling efforts saved the equivalent of 27,907 40-foot fir trees; 15,011,500 gallons of water; 128,670 pounds of air pollution; 6433.5 cubic yards of landfill space; and 8,796,739 kilowatt hours of energy.
Bob Coyle, head of Republic Services, is quick to point out that Pike’s enormous divergence rate—653 tons of material diverted from landfills in 2007—is doubly impressive because of her budget constraints. “That’s all without a lot of equipment,” Coyle says.
“She does it without a lot of trucks, and does it on a shoestring.” Coyle is quick to point out that the best grassroots efforts often make it to the corporate world of recycling. “People like Tara are the reason we have an Earth Day. They are the paradigm-shifters of the world. They help the corporate community to change.” Coyle says that Pike makes his job easier. “She enables me to try to move the recycling message forward.”