Evicting a Visionary

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Sam Bendinelli ’13 didn’t expect levitation when he went to a public hearing last February. But then again, he had never been at a public hearing with CJ May FES ’89, Yale’s recycling coordinator.

Bendinelli had been working with Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 on a bill that would prohibit New Haven tax dollars from being spent on bottled water, and was at the hearing to testify.

At the hearing, Bendinelli, last year’s president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, met May. Bendinelli recalls that May “got up and gave an impassioned plea to pass the bill … with magic tricks!” It struck Bendinelli that May had taken his own time to come to the hearing, and had even brought his son with him. “You could tell that this was something he really cared about, and cared about enough to share with his family,” Bendinelli continues. “The emotion in his voice was evident. He stole the show.”

In one of the tricks, May levitated a bottle of water, a trick in which he places the flattened bottle onto his hand, with the spout in his palm and the base facing out.

“It’s important to show that these things are alive,” May says when he performs this trick. “Even if the bottle is flattened, and even if it doesn’t have a label (because, you know, in Connecticut, if it has a label, it can be returned for five cents) — ” he stares at the bottle with his piercing blue eyes “ — it still has a life.” The base of the bottle gradually lifts up until it has levitated to a diagonal posture.

The bill passed unanimously.

***

CJ May has been a part of the Yale community since 1988, when he started as a student at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; since 1990 he has coordinated Yale Recycling. He dresses like a cross between a recycler and office employee: his dark blue pants are constricted at his ankle by a reflective bicycling cuff, and over a collared shirt and tie he wears a Yale Recycling sweatshirt with “TALK TRASH TO ME” written in scraggly letters on the back. A patch — something like a scouting merit badge — is sewn on the left shoulder, commemorating Nov. 15, National Recycling Day. He has long gray hair that gets tied back with a black ribbon. It’s not uncommon to see him biking near campus wearing a neon yellow vest. But come the end of this fiscal year, as a result of budget cuts and administrative reorganization, May will no longer be Yale’s Recycler.

***

Yale Recycling, the oldest student environmental group on campus, began in 1970, when a transfer student from Vassar College, Christiane Citron ’71 (“Almost like the car,” May quips) founded it.

“I don’t quite know what gave me the idea,” Citron recalls, “except seeing the masses of paper that were thrown away.” Working with a handful of other students, she broached the recycling idea to the Office of Facilities. Though it would be something of an imposition, they were interested. “It was definitely Facilities [who enabled the effort],” Citron said. “I worked closely with the college garbagemen.”

A Yale Alumni Magazine article from December 1970 describes Citron’s “recycling experiment.” Though at first she struggled to convince people to save paper (“I was pretty preachy,” she says), within a semester her weekly pickups yielded 3,000 pounds of paper, which were sold to Dave’s Mill Supply in New Haven. The nearest glass bottle recycling plant was 80 miles away and the nearest can processing plant just as far, so the bottles and cans collected every week were stored under the baseball bleachers until there were enough collected to fill a truck.

May worked for Yale Recycling as a student at FES from 1988 to 1990. By that time, it had turned from a handful of students at the grassroots level into an official student organization. Working for Recycling “was a brilliant part of my education; a great counter-juxtaposition to the Yale classroom,” he says. “It was like, you don’t have to just study, you can do something now!” The job was also empowering for women, he adds, saying that stereotypes of women were much more pervasive during his time there than they are now. “We didn’t have any of those domestic stereotypes — we had women driving giant trucks and lifting bins!”

In the late ’80s, the stakes of recycling got higher. Whereas solid waste disposal had been, as May says, “coffee money” — something like $17.50 per ton — disposal became much more expensive as recycling became more popular and landfills began to fill and close. (Now, he says, depending on where you are, the cost of solid waste disposal runs $50-$100 per ton.)

In 1987, Connecticut passed a law that mandated the recycling of certain items, including various kinds of paper, glass and metal food containers, cardboard, leaves and waste oil. At that point it became clear — partially through May’s own research for his master’s degree project — that student recyclers would be unable to handle all of Yale’s recycling efforts.

May was hired after graduation to oversee the existing student organization and initiate a more formal University program, deal with vendors, and ensure price competitiveness and compliance with recycling legislation. More recently, he has been the force behind a number of new initiatives including Spring Salvage, reusing surplus Yale materials and helping the University achieve waste reduction goals.

Citron fell out of touch with Yale Recycling after her graduation but has reconnected in the past 10 years. Although she no longer lives in New Haven, she comes back for reunions and other Association of Yale Alumni events. “I discovered CJ and we totally bonded,” she says. “I am filled with admiration for what he has accomplished. By the time I got back in touch he was flourishing, booming, doing stuff — like a pied piper.”

Students continued to be involved in Yale Recycling with May at its helm. May says that the most practical and fun part of his Yale education was driving the recycling truck, and the truck, now a Yale-blue Dodge pickup, has lured students to join as Yale recycling volunteers and employees throughout May’s time at Yale. “How to Be Environmental at Yale … and why to Bother,” a YSEC publication from 1995, explained with cheeky pride:

“Picking up 55-gallon drums full of mixed paper or plastics is not an easy job — but … we have a large rack-body pickup truck to help us in our efforts. The utilization of a large commercial vehicle … brings certain privileges … [including] exemption from all parking regulations, admiring stares from pedestrians, and free transportation to New York. Driving a large commercial vehicle commands respect seldom experienced by the lesser echelons of the Yale community.”

***

But May’s recycling truck rounds are soon to be over. With budget constraints forcing restructuring and reorganization across the University, come July will he no longer have a job at Yale.

“Different pieces of the job are being picked up by different offices, including the Provost’s Office and students,” explains Kara Tavella, associate director of administration and human resources for the Office of Facilities. “There are a lot of metrics to keep track of in recycling, and Facilities, which handles waste, isn’t the best office to be keeping track of those metrics.”

It’s easy to think that cutting the recycling coordinator position is a step backward for Yale Recycling — a casualty of budget cuts, a stab at those who make up institutional memory. But, as Charles Zhu ’11 explains, it is also part of Yale’s realization that recycling and sustainability can be integrated more holistically into its operations. Neither should exist as an isolated office, Zhu says; rather, they should permeate many different departments.

In 2010, the Office of Sustainability released a strategic plan, which includes goals to decrease Yale’s solid municipal waste by 25 percent by 2013. “A lot of different subauthorities were working on sustainability or related issues in separate ways,” Zhu says. “Now the Office of Sustainability is trying to integrate all of those so that all of the separate authorities can be behind one plan.”

The most visible change in recycling at Yale in the past year has been the transition to single-stream recycling, which eliminates the need for individuals to separate recyclables into categories: paper, metals and glass can all be placed in the same container. After a pilot program last year, nearly all the receptacles in the residential colleges have been relabeled over the past semester, and the obsolete “highboy” containers replaced with more up-to-date “Slim Jim bins.”

According to Bob Ferretti, Yale’s waste and recycling manager, in 2009, Yale set the goal of increasing its recycling rate, then 21 percent, by 25 percent by 2013. The rate so far this fiscal year is 28 percent, exceeding the 25 percent increase. Making recycling more convenient through single-stream is part of the process of achieving that goal.

As a result of the transition, custodians only have to pull one bag of recyclables, and only one truck has to be sent to a collection point, rather than a different truck for each type of recyclable. Therein may lie one irony of single-stream: recycling coordinator May has been working on the transition, but ultimately its ease may render his position obsolete.

After a Yalie throws an item in a single-stream receptacle, it is picked up by Yale’s custodial staff and taken to a transfer facility near the Quinnipiac Bridge in New Haven. From there it goes to a Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF, pronounced “merf”) in Berlin, Conn., 40 minutes north of New Haven, where a high-tech machine sorts the recyclables. Along the machine’s conveyor belt there are optical eyes to determine the density of plastics, air streams to separate paper and magnets to grab metals.

The convenience could be too good to be true. The transition to single-stream nationwide has raised doubts about the increased rate of contamination as a result of mixing recyclables. In an October 2010 article in the Fort Collins, Colo. “Matter Daily” blog, that city’s senior environmental planner was quoted as saying that only 30 percent of glass dropped into commingled recycling actually made it to a second use — “on a good day.”

The director of New Haven’s Office of Sustainability, Christine Eppstein Tang, says, however, that the MRF where New Haven sends its recyclables (a different facility than Yale’s, in Willimantic, Conn.) estimates that 94 percent is recycled. Ferretti adds, “Industry-wide the switch [to single-stream] has seen a slight increase in contamination, but for the overall increase in volume [of recyclables] that slight increase is seen as insignificant. The MRFs are equipped to handle it.” And the technology will only improve.

***

And yet while Yale’s trucks lighten their rounds and the recycling bins get retrofitted, something is lost. “Spreading the pieces of the [recycling coordinator] job out,” as Tavella explains it, still costs May, a pillar of the community and committed employee of 20 years, his job. She acknowledges, “CJ works a lot with students, and I’m sure the students are feeling this as a loss.”

She’s right. Any student acquainted with CJ knows that his campus presence will be missed greatly.

“CJ’s getting laid off is one of those things that’s going to happen and no one’s going to know about,” Bendinelli says. “I don’t know the process for laying people off but I doubt there’s a hearing.”

(Which, given May’s past performances at public hearings, is too bad.)

Even if consolidation can eliminate the need for a recycling coordinator, students interviewed say May’s informal role on campus is as powerful and important as his formal job — one that cannot be replaced with streamlined recycling vessels.

“He has a long history here,” Bendinelli says. “He has meant a lot to a lot of people. He’s part of the community, and he does things you don’t expect — he goes above and beyond.”

Last year, Bendinelli says, May came back from an environmental conference and got in touch with Think Outside the Bottle — Bendinelli’s bottled water working group — to show them a DVD about water filtration he had brought back which he thought would interest them.

“We didn’t ask for it — he was just thoughtful,” Bendinelli says. “He takes time to think of others. Those that know him have been touched by him.”

Like Bendinelli, Zhu got to know May through his work in YSEC. Zhu says May is always enthusiastic about getting students involved, and that May’s knowledge runs much deeper than just recycling: he’s a source of information about energy and composting as well as other related topics. He describes May’s informal role on campus as a “conduit between the students and the higher administration who could catalyze what should happen into what could happen.”

Zhu worked with May especially on Trash to Treasure, a collaboration between YSEC and Spring Salvage. “Even though it’s not really in his job description to do this,” Zhu says, echoing Bendinelli, “he went above and beyond and gave us all the information that was necessary to make the program a success, and a really educational experience. He gave us a big-picture view of waste at Yale and the whole reuse cycle.”

In New Haven, May has formal and informal roles as well. He led the Connecticut Recyclers Coalition from 2003 to 2011, and with his family lives a lifestyle whose sustainability efforts have gained them local acclaim.

In 1995, an article appeared in the New Haven Register about the “Connecticut Diet.” May and his wife Becky May ’88 — who he calls “even more of a sustainability person than I am” — had decided to eat a diet of entirely Connecticut-grown food. “We were locavores before that was a word,” May says. (They made exceptions on Fridays, when they allowed themselves a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a loaf of bread.) They kept it up for two years, but ended because “my wife got pregnant and had to have Froot Loops,” May says. They still eat mostly local food, getting produce from both summer and winter CSAs from local farms, and doing some work on the farms.

***

One of May’s roles takes on another identity entirely.

Zhu explains that once, while leading a Day of Service trip to the East Rock Park Green Expo to help plant new trees, he came across May not in his normal recycling garb — but a wizard’s robe. At first, he says, it was strange to see him in this new context, but May convinced the group to watch his show. “He gave us the cutest show about recycling, and it was also very informative,” Zhu says.

In the persona of Cyril the (Re)Sourcerer, May performs “Recycling is Magic,” a roughly 20-minute spectacle about a village that has everything — until a band of ogres comes and eats all the food and uses all of the village’s things.

May starts the show by dumping things all over the ground to show the ogres’ wastefulness: “it gets kids’ attention to see a grown-up dumping things,” he explains. Then a wizard with a staff comes to the village to clean up the mess. First he just cleans it up by making it disappear, but making everything go away is the wrong kind of magic! The villagers say, “if you make it all go away, we won’t have anything left!” Then May brings the show into real life, and shows the solution. He holds up a blue recycling bin.

“All you need is a magic box,” he says. “Put stuff in and you are making magic happen.” He makes sure to distinguish between magic and the reality of recycling. “In our world, there are no wands or hats, but there is a magic blue box, and a truck that picks things up.” The reality is as wonderful as fantasy, he says.

May takes his show around the Northeast to schools, libraries and festivals. While many magicians are at their busiest around Halloween, he is most in demand around Earth Day. His goal for 2012 is to develop a show about water conservation — again with a village and a wizard — in addition to “Recycling is Magic.”

May first became interested in magic in 2004 as a result of Harry Potter mania. Thinking it would be fun to go to a magic show, he found a local magician, Jim Sisti, on the internet; Sisti, learning that May was a recycler, showed him the trick that hooked May into learning magic for himself.

“There were all these newspaper scraps on the table,” May explains, “and he started putting them together. And then, FOOM! a newspaper back together again!” May says that he instantly thought of that transformation as a recycling process, and magic as a great way to illustrate recycling. Usually, he says, to learn about recycling “you have to go to a plant and have someone jabber at you.” Magic is powerful to translate ideas, he says, and the idea of powerful magic in real life is a great metaphor.

More and more, May uses his wizard persona to talk to adults. He presented at the Building Materials Reuse Association 2011 conference; at the College and University Recycling Council conference; and at a national recycling magazine conference in Indianapolis. When he presents to these professional groups, he says, the message isn’t instructional like it is for general audiences. These people already recycle, so “it’s like a pat on the back — you’re doing the magic.”

May has also incorporated magic into training programs at Yale. He has presented to labs, custodians and dining employees. When a new program starts, like the composting program in the dining hall, he says that magic makes things stick better. “People will remember it if I make a fish appear in a fishbowl!”

Green magic may seem like a tiny, esoteric niche, but there are eco-magicians across the country. Magic Magazine, the world’s largest-selling magazine for magicians, featured green magicians as its cover story in November 2011, with a spread that included May.

May says there is no network of eco-magicians, but he has thought about starting “The Fellowship of Green Magicians.” He also hopes that conventional magicians will start including more green magic in their shows, because “everyone knows that good wizards use their magic for good!” He adds, “My skill level is about Ron Weasley for magic, but higher for content.”

For all May’s practicing of sleight of hand and illusion, what really makes a difference to him is the message. He has spent his career at Yale putting that message into action, only to find that his innovations in recycling leaned so far forward that the University no longer found his job necessary.

***

Suddenly May has a Sharpie in his hand. He uncaps it and writes something on his left palm. “If you don’t recycle, your trash goes to the B. To the B.” He puts the marker to the side and holds up his hand. There is a B written on it. “Right. Most people hear that and get a confused look on their face.” He stands up and starts agitatedly putting his hands in his pockets. He eventually pulls out a white Bic lighter from his back pocket, and turns on the flame. “If you throw something away in New Haven, your trash goes to Bridgeport,” he says, bringing the flame closer and closer to the B on his left hand. He finally clasps his B-hand around the hand with the flame, and holds it there for a minute. He brings his clasped hands to his chest and holds them there, with his striking blue eyes continuing to stare straight out. Finally, smoke begins to come out of his mouth. “It goes to B-B-Bridgeport, and it burns up … it all goes away in flames.” He coughs out the words, totally out of breath.

Comments

  • Morsel_08

    What a huge loss!! CJ’s job extended far beyond coordinating recycling! He empowered and educated and inspired so many young people! As a Yale Recycling alum and current environmental professional, I often think of CJ and how he kindled so much excitement about environmental issues among us students.

    The Yale Administration would do well to keep CJ on staff as a mentor to the student environmental groups. It is sad and shortsighted to think his role at Yale is obsolete.

  • locnessy81

    I’m in absolute shock to see they could possible let CJ leave, let alone fire him. He is the one person at this University I think is indisposable. The ONLY person this university cannot go without if it really wants to move forward.