As University of Colorado Boulder students cheered during CU’s football game against the University of California on Folsom Field on September 28, Jack DeBell led another group of students sorting the recyclables and compost of the game.
“Hey Jack, don’t you have somewhere to be? You’re retired!” Dave Newport, Director of the Environmental Center at CU, said.
DeBell wanted to leave the same way he had started his career at CU Boulder, recycling.
After 38 years of working with the university’s Environmental Center, DeBell retired as Program Development Director that day.
CU’s recycling program was the first in the nation in 1970. DeBell started working with the program as part of work-study as a freshman in 1979.
“It goes back to the early excitement that a number of us work-study students and volunteers had in the late 1970s, when recycling wasn’t in some dictionaries. It was still being defined.” DeBell said. “We knew that we were breaking ground, that this was needed, and that we were making an impact and that it was going to take off.”
He worked for four years during undergrad as a student at the center, to a temporary employee as a state position was being created, to finally the director.
In 38 years, DeBell has managed to make an impact on many levels regarding recycling—the university level, the community level and even the national level. He credits the Boy Scouts and his father for making him want to make a difference.
DeBell’s father, Jack DeBell Sr., was a part of creating the first municipal composting program in Colorado.
DeBell’s initial work with the municipal recycling program was a service project required for his promotion to Eagle Scout. He said his involvement in the scouts gave him a deeper appreciation for nature and that played a role in him pursuing something more contemplative in his studies versus the direct business or accounting path he might have taken otherwise.
While DeBell’s love for recycling might have started with a love for nature, business and finances were a part of fighting for recycling.
Will Toor, former director of the Environmental Center, recalls a time in the 1990s when the university hired a consultant to do an evaluation of the recycling program to decide if it was financially beneficial for the university.
Toor and DeBell spent weeks pouring over the consultant’s numbers because Jack knew that recycling was cheaper than wasting, but the numbers from the evaluation showed differently.
“The consultant forgot to take into account ‘Simpson’s Paradox’.” DeBell said.
The paradox occurs in probability and statistics. The consultant collected data across different departments. When looking at all the data by department, recycling saves the university money, but when looking at that data as a whole the trend disappears making recycling appear more expensive. DeBell explained this to the university, proving recycling was worth keeping beyond moral values.
“Anyone who has been on the CU Boulder campus or in the city of Boulder over the last few decades, you’ve seen Jack’s handiwork,” Toor said, “And you know the impact he’s had on our community. What may not be as obvious is the impact that he’s had around that nation.”
The recycling movement in America really started to take off in the 1990s and DeBell was in the trenches fighting for the university community. DeBell helped universities gain a voice on the National Recycling Board. He was recognized by the EPA, the White House Task Force on Recycling, Dell Computer and more. He was also part of creating the Grassroots Recycling Network, which developed the core message of Zero Waste in the mid-1990s.
“[The National Recycling Board] would be asking for Jack’s perspective, which showed Jack had earned so much respect,” Eric Lombardi, former director of Eco-Cycle, said. “He was a good spokesman for the university and for the students. He was a fighter, and that’s what we needed back then.”
The recycling program is what Dave Newport calls the flagship program of the Environmental Center. It’s the oldest program, staffs the most students and has the most visibility on campus. Jack stabilized and legitimizes the Environmental Center’s expertise in recycling. On most college campuses the recycling is done by facilities management, but on the CU campus it is done by students.
“Jack has certain principles,” Newport said. “It’s not just good enough to recycle material. That material needs to come back in a closed loop to the highest and best use.”
On the night of Jack’s retirement, he finally handed Dave a carabiner with the recycling symbol on it, which is something Jack picked up from the Outward Bound program. Jack often gave them to staff or students he felt had a lot of promise. It was like earning a merit badge in recycling.
As DeBell leaves he wants to leave behind an important and hopeful point that will keep people excited about their impact and work.
“It’s synergy. One person’s individual efforts combined with another’s, even though they’re small and individual, have a greater cumulative impact. So, when you have 29,000 students that are doing the right thing, it has a cumulative impact that can oftentimes make the difference.” DeBell said.