With more than 16,000 square miles of pristine greenery, it's hard to imagine the Upper Peninsula lagging behind in environmental-friendliness. Not that Yoopers themselves aren't conscious of their impact on the planet or value their SUVs more than clean water and air. The problem seems to be a lack of population.
Only 311,361 people live in the U.P., according to the 2010 census. Naturally, areas like metro Detroit, that are pouring unfathomable tons of carbon into the air (due to a substantial suburban commuting population), demand more attention.
Still, Yoopers are conscientious about treating the planet with care. In short, they'd like to keep the trees green and the water clean. City recycling efforts are underway for residents in Marquette, Escanaba, Houghton and other larger towns. But prior to earlier this year, there were no recycling options for a lot of people in the largely rural Upper Peninsula. That's when Chimène Puska of Baraga-based U.P. Green stepped up to the plate.
The answer to the U.P.'s recycling problem was simple and is continually evolving--reuse.
"We're sharing ideas where people can actually make products at a very low cost," explains Puska, noting they're providing "supply chain-based recycling and repurposing for manufacturers, artists and school supplies" with recycling materials collected by her organization.
Before U.P. Green, the closest recycling service for Yoopers was hundreds of miles away in Detroit.
"A lot of the smaller companies up here that are independent don't have time to go downstate," says Puska. That's where U.P. Green Business Zone comes in, a growing portfolio of U.P. companies who receive collection services from Puska's organization. The more U.P. Green recycles, the more jobs are created, especially at partner companies like SGT'S Recycling in Escanaba.
SGT'S Recycling is, as the name suggests, a recycling company. Their niche, however, is in hiring veterans.
"About 50-60 percent of our staff are veterans," says CEO Steve Hawn. "They always get preferential treatment from us when we really need to hire and even when we don't."
Hawn's company doesn't charge for recycling, which makes Puska's still-young U.P. Green a perfect match. She collects recyclable items like mattresses, light bulbs and electronics from across the U.P. and delivers them to Hawn whose employees repurpose them. (U.P. Green is not certified to break them down into components, like SGT'S is).
Hawn says they're on pace to recycle 600 to 700 tons this year. Not coincidentally, that's 600 to 700 tons staying out of area landfills. And thus far, both sides are happy with their working relationship, even if it's only been a couple of months.
"They've been very helpful," says Hawn of U.P. Green. "We've been sharing contacts back and forth, and we've been working with them on some ideas for them, because they're pretty new to the whole scene." In return, Puska's team has put together a few press releases for Hawn and has worked with them to establish a business plan.
Young and hungry, Puska is on the lookout for new business and encourages interested companies to reach out, stressing the importance of companies monitoring their impact on the environment.
"It helps them if they don't have a sustainable policy or to at least start looking at the impact they have on the environment and to just try to create a healthier environment for their employees," she says. "They'll be contributing to their future in the U.P., as well as their family's future."
But it's not just business that can take a stance on keeping the U.P. clean. Local governments can work with U.P. Green, too.
Another one of Puska's emerging partnerships comes out of L'Anse Township, a town of just under 4,000 planted on the coast of Lake Superior. With the nation's largest body of freshwater right in their backyard, the citizens of L'Anse have a natural interest in keeping things green. That's why Village Manager Bob LaFave welcomed the opportunity to work with U.P. Green.
"We saw it as an opportunity to expand beyond the programs that we offer through our electric utility," he says. "Our hope is that in conjunction with our utilities programs, we can offer a more robust set of programs to help our residents."
U.P. Green will be offering L'Anse residents Energy Star, a U.S Environmental Protection Agency program that helps businesses and individuals save money while protecting the environment through superior energy efficiency, and other energy savings programs in addition to a recycling and repurpose program.
"We see these programs and activities as a great way to benefit the local community by further enhancing energy savings programs in the community," notes LaFave. "We are happy to have them [U.P. Green] working to make an impact here."
Puska's fledgling company has been well-received by both its business and municipal partners, for its initiative and services.
"They're willing to take on an area void of recycling options, and we're happy they're trying to do their bit for the U.P., the region and help bring us together," says Hawn.
Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.