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Lifelong tree hugger helping to keep ASU green


man putting cardboard into recycling bin

Rick Olson drops cardboard in a blue recycling container in the School of Life Sciences building on the Tempe campus.
Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News

June 19, 2015

Richard Olson remembers when Arizona State University didn’t have a streak of green running through this maroon and gold campus.

This was back in the mid-’80s, long before ASU had installed a host of initiatives to improve its sustainability and trend toward the goal of being an environmentally friendly campus.

Back then Olson was in the shipping and receiving area of ASU’s purchasing department, watching tall piles of cardboard and used wooden pallets simply being tossed into the dump with all the other trash.

“I just couldn’t stand by and see this, being the environmental tree hugger that I am,” Olson said.

So the tree hugger did something about it, calling the City of Tempe to ask how all this cardboard could be recycled. Turns out, if he bundled the material properly, someone from the city would come and pick it up. Problem solved. Environmental guilt sated.

Now, nobody is saying this was the start of ASU’s green streak. But nearly 30 years later, Olson can say it’s one of those moments that affirmed he could make an environmental difference here.

As this Minnesota native moved into the School of Life Sciences, he carried the recycling initiative with him, ensuring the school was doing its part by becoming its recycling coordinator in 1989. He has been doing the job, along with regular duties as the school's shipping and receiving coordinator, ever since.

“He is always seeking to improve the collections efficiency in all of the Life Sciences buildings,” said Lucas Mariacher, a recycling technician for ASU. “I wish I had a Rick Olson in every single building on campus.”

Olson is a rare specimen, but especially so in the Phoenix metro area. In a place where everyone drives seemingly everywhere – especially during the summer months – Olson walks, bikes and uses public transport to get around. He hasn’t had a car since 1990, when he sold his ride after his kids challenged him to do more to combat pollution.

"It was rough the first few years. I mean, I was getting kidded by everybody. They thought I was nuts," he said. "I needed to do something drastic, so I just don't drive. It's my thing. ... There are times I wish I had a car, it's kind of hard to date."

As he approaches three decades at ASU, Olson can reflect on his devotion to making this a more green place and the joy he feels in seeing how environmentally friendly the university has become.

Still, there’s one more change he’d like to make. It involves the autoclaves used to sterilize various items in the School of Life Sciences. They use water to generate steam, but once the sterilization cycle is complete the excess water is simply sent flowing down a drain.

Olson can’t stand it. This guy from the land of 10,000 lakes is a “water guy.” So years ago he proposed an idea to capture the water and reuse it to hydrate various plants around ASU. The plan earned him a second-place prize and $1,000 from the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. Though his idea wasn't implemented, his hope hasn't died.

“I’m going to push this thing one more time.”

Spoken like a true tree hugger.

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