When asked if he is from Oregon, John Matthews looks pensive and says, “Not exactly.”
Considering the decades he has spent living in Oregon, not to mention his
contributions to protecting Oregon’s environment, Matthews’ answer makes sense. It can be tough for an Oregon transplant, even one with as much love as he has demonstrated for the state, to admit he wasn’t born here.
A native Californian who spent most of his formative years in Hawaii, Matthews moved to Oregon to study oceanography at Oregon State University.
“Growing up in Hawaii, I became interested in the environment because I was outside all the time,” Matthews said.
One particular endeavor steered Matthews’ path away from his plans for a career in oceanography. In 1970, while attending OSU, Matthews volunteered to participate in events related to the first Earth Day, including a recycling demonstration project.
“It was an overwhelming success,” Matthews recalled. “It was remarkable how people brought in garbage to turn it into a resource that helps the environment.”
However, as the end of the semester rolled around and students started leaving for the summer, the momentum waned. For Matthews, it was unacceptable.
“We can’t stop now,” he remembers saying. “This is too good to stop.”
As a result, Matthews was left “holding the proverbial bag,” a bag he has held ever since.
“There’s a reason why I stuck with recycling,” Matthews said. “It is an opportunity to do something good for the environment and recycling is a great tool—a seductive way of getting people involved.”
Like today, many youth of that era were the “converts” and took what they learned about recycling home.
Eventually, government decided to make it easier for people to recycle by allowing co-mingling of different recyclable products. Matthews admits some resistance to the idea of co-mingling, however “The increase in participation more than made up for the increase in effort.”
While working for a private recycling company in the early 1970s, Matthews met Sally Gearhart, founder of what was then called Garten Foundation. Gearhart’s dream was to find meaningful work for people with disabilities and Matthews saw a possibility that has grown into what is known today as Garten Services.
He’s been with the Garten for 33 years and serves as its sustainability coordinator and recycling advisor.
“I was able to promote things I felt important in the physical environment, while at the same time realizing a potential human resource that wasn’t being recognized or appreciated,” Matthews said.
Proud of Oregon’s efforts to recycle, Matthews notes that the state was the first in the country to re-tool industry for recycling purposes. Matthews’ focus is now on sustainability; he recently received a certificate of completion in sustainability leadership from the University of Oregon.
“We have the 3 Rs of recycling: reduce, reuse, recycle,” Matthews explained. “Now we have the 3 Es of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity (the social fairness of a transaction). Ultimately, sustainability is about not borrowing from the future to satisfy our desires today.”
Looking back on all Oregon’s accomplishments in the realm of recycling, Matthews is overcome with pride.
“It has been fun to be a part of helping make Oregon the No. 1 recycling state in the country – and keep it there,” he said.