County official 'recycles' Emmet Co. culture

Elisa Seltzer figured she’d serve five years as Emmet County’s director of public works -- just long enough to get a recycling program up and running.

That was 21 years ago.

Seltzer has created a self-supporting recycling program that includes 13 drop sites, curbside collection for 60 percent of Emmet Countyand more than 250 businesses, and a processing center serving Emmet, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties. And she decided to stick around and oversee it all, too.

“I found out there’s always more to do,” said Seltzer, 50, of Harbor Springs. “There’s a constant challenge. You can always do something more efficiently, meet more needs of the community, recover more materials, find a better market, forge better relations.”

Above all, Seltzer is most proud of building a program with community support from the ground up that is self-supporting and successful.

“Together we all created a program that saves people money, saves resources,” she said. “We live in an environment where people can look around and say, `Yeah, we’re making a difference. It’s beautiful here. We want to keep our water and air clean.’”

In a tough economy, recycling is a great investment for Michigan, Seltzer added, noting that materials once headed for landfills are instead sold to local factories at a low price, which means jobs and resources remain in the state.

As an example of an effective private/public partnership, Emmet County developed a solid waste ordinance that requires solid waste haulers to be licensed. The haulers set their own rates, as long as it’s based on volume, so residents have an incentive to decrease their waste and recycle.

Before she caught the recycling bug, Seltzer grew up as a tomboy in Chicago. She knew she wanted to attend the University of Michigan as soon as she set foot on the leafy campus.

After graduating from the School of Natural Resources, she stayed in Ann Arbor, simultaneously working three jobs for three years while saving up for a trip around the world.

She spent most of her time in Asia – in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand– and returned with a new appreciation for things most people take for granted here. Upon her return, she also was struck by just how much stuff Americans throw away.

Her first job back in the States was as a curbside recycling truck driver for Recycle Ann Arbor. She quickly rose to the post of coordinator of the curbside recycling program and became involved in budget development, grant writing and other tasks of cooperatively managing the facility.

In 1989, she and her husband, Steve Johnson, and a group of friends bought 120 acres of farmland in Emmet County, which they developed as a real estate association to both protect individual owner interests, as well as incorporate land conservation principles.

Before they moved, Seltzer heard about an opening for solid waste director of Emmet County, and heard a host of reasons she wouldn’t get the job: She was young, female, unknown, from down state and didn’t know a thing about solid waste.

That didn't stop her. And during her first year, she helped get a two-year millage and a solid waste ordinance passed to support the new resource recovery programs.

Since 1991, the county waste and recycling programs have been self-funded through revenues gained from the recyclables. Last year, Emmet County Recycling sold more than 7,900 tons of material to industry.

Kate Melby, who has worked with Seltzer since 1993, said that some leaders from rural communities insist they can’t tackle a recycling project because their area is too small. “One of the striking things about Elisa is she never does this,” said Melby, the department's communications coordinator. “She is always looking for the next big thing on the resource recovery horizon and implementing it here.”

Since moving north, Seltzer has come full circle. Once she was the outsider without the right characteristics or credentials. Now she's the "Outstanding Citizen of the Year," as deemed by the Harbor Springs Chamber of Commerce, and the "Recycler of the Year," determined by the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

“You know you’re doing something good for the environment and the economy,” she said. “Recycling can save families $100 to $150 a year, so people really feel good about it because they see the impact in their daily lives."

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Seth Phillips
Tue, 01/17/2012 - 10:49am
Great article about a terrific lady. I worked with Elisa for 11 years when I ran the state's solid waste planning and recycling grant and loan programs. She was a tireless advocate for these issues and always looked for creative, win/win solutions whenever possible. Michigan has been blessed with several great leaders on these issues like Elisa or the late Anne Mason, two peas from the same pod. Keep up the great work Elisa.
Tue, 01/17/2012 - 8:06pm
This is an inspiring story about a dedicated public servant who has the citizens' interest at heart. Best of luck to Eliza and her cohorts as they save the planet by recycling.