Meet Seattle's 'Godfather of Recycling'

Guest Opinion: Armen Stepanian, Fremont legend and the father of Seattle's ubiquitous recycling program, watched this year as the city marked its 25th anniversary. A little too quietly.
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Guest Opinion: Armen Stepanian, Fremont legend and the father of Seattle's ubiquitous recycling program, watched this year as the city marked its 25th anniversary. A little too quietly.

It is difficult to get Armen Stepanian, father of recycling, to focus. Stepanian is so full of dizzying ideas and intriguing scraps of history that he constantly digresses and takes you off on wild, self-directed sleigh-rides into unscripted territory.

But that figures; you would expect nothing less from the radical, long-haired carpenter/sometime actor who left New York for Fremont and became the neighborhood’s standout character. Stepanian was elected honorary mayor of Fremont in the 1970s, besting two dogs and a tavern owner. Later, he had a public disagreement with the late Rich Beyer — the sculptor who retaliated by putting Stepanian’s face on the pug-like dog in the “Waiting for the Interurban” statue. 

Stepanian (middle name Napoleon) has been called many things: “Zeus-like,” a “bull in a China shop” and, due to his rambles, not unlike Dennis Hopper’s flighty character in “Apocalypse Now.” He’s also known as the creator of Fremont’s food and clothing bank, which morphed into the Fremont Public Association and later became the low-income housing developer Solid Ground.  

And, for the purposes of this story, he’s the undisputed Seattle “Godfather of Recycling.” Stepanian first pushed the idea of recycling in 1973 when he made recycling the theme of the Fremont Fair. He invited attendees to bring their aluminum, newspaper, tin and other recyclables to a booth at the fair. That led to his establishing Fremont Recycling Center No. 1, named in hopes of other centers forming. 

Stepanian began offering curbside recycling to 65 homes in the fall of 1974. He employed a white Chevy van and a few juveniles who had been ordered to do community service. Soon, he had 500 homes on his monthly route.

As Stepanian ruefully recalls, “It took the city 13 years to catch up.” But finally, in 1988, the city caught on. Once the idea was adopted, it became a national model.

In Seattle, we’ve grown so accustomed to recycling that it has become a yawn. Few, if any, news media troubled to mark the Feb. 1st 25th anniversary of city-wide recycling. 

That’s a bittersweet tribute: That 25-year saga still deserves recapping, if only for the differences recycling has made and will continue to make in the way we live. 

When the city took over curbside recycling from Armen Stepanian in 1988, the ramp-up was gradual. In 2003, after 15 years of recycling, Seattle could only brag about recycling 38 percent of its trash. That’s when Mayor Greg Nickels set an aspirational goal: 60 percent of trash recycled by 2010.

In 2004, the Council passed an ordinance that prohibited the disposal of certain recyclables into garbage. Then, in 2005, Seattle Public Utilities launched “Wasteless in Seattle,” an aggressive program to divert garbage from landfills. Today we recycle an estimated 57 percent of our waste stream. 

Along the way, the city has taken a number of giant steps towards meeting its goal. Foremost among them is “Zero Waste:” a plan to increase recycling, reduce trash and upgrade Seattle’s transfer stations. Each year more items can be recycled and campaigns are being mounted to push commercial recycling to match residential gains. Next month, my committee will discuss expanding the ban of commercial disposal of recyclables to include cans, bottles and jars (similar to what we already require of residences). 

Meanwhile, Stepanian views it all from Ocean Shores where he and his wife have retired. Fremont, he argues, has grown too expensive. He’s reached the age of 81 and confesses that he’s still “glad to be alive” — even though he reports he has lost one eye and one-third of his stomach. 

He still irrepressibly argues for innovations. He wants us to use the GAME acronym, which he says can be translated as “Garbage, Air Management Efficiency.” Or, if you’d rather, “economy.” He thinks we could save the city money with a pair of small scissors.

“I took my small scissors to my Oreo tray and snipped the corners so that it took up less room,” he told me, speaking in a booming voice by phone, but barely needing any amplification. “And I have some other ideas as well…”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.