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Friday, February 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Custodian teaches students about the environment

By Cara Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tolt Middle School custodian Selim Uzuner directs students as they put paper and cardboard in recycling bins behind their school. Uzuner created the recycling club and has nurtured it through the years, hoping to introduce hundreds of teenagers to his lifelong passion.
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One by one, the students walked down the ramp of the portable classroom, their arms weighed down with stacks of unread newspapers.

Selim Uzuner let out a pained cry from where he stood on the Tolt Middle School lawn.

"The teacher doesn't want them?" he asked, his voice rising. "Why did she order them?"

A college-educated former hippie, Uzuner has gone far beyond his daily duties as the custodian at Tolt. Over the course of his 16 years there, Uzuner has become the Carnation school's unofficial environmental activist — writing grants, conducting waste-stream analyses, picking through garbage cans at lunchtime in search of plastics.

But what really put the man on the map is his recycling club. Uzuner started it more than 10 years ago as a way to get help with Tolt's recycling effort. Now it has become tradition: Every Tuesday and Friday, a few students swap some of their cafeteria time for a job outside and some environmental education.

In the latter half of their lunch hour, the teenagers ferry recycling bins over sidewalks and down hallways, across gravel paths and through the grass. They duck into each classroom and empty paper from the teachers' trays into their bins.

Uzuner follows behind at a distance, answering questions when asked and pointing out problems where he sees them.

"It's not a real mind-bender," he said of the work. "But there's a deeper level I want them to think about: the salmon."

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Custodian Selim Uzuner helps a student sort items left in a recycling bin at Tolt Middle School. The recycling club has led the school's participation in the King County Green Schools program.
The production of paper is linked to the health of the forests, which is linked to the survival of the salmon, he tells them. And if the salmon die out, Uzuner said, "we're not too far behind."

The son of two schoolteachers, Uzuner was born on the Black Sea coast of Turkey. His family moved to the United States when he was in eighth grade, settling in a suburb of Boston. They always stressed education, and Uzuner followed their lead, studying at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"I didn't go to college as a career move," said Uzuner, who studied mostly philosophy and literature and speaks four languages. "It was a really worthwhile experience."

Within a semester of getting his degree, Uzuner left college to begin life as a hippie.

He had worked on the grounds crew at Rutgers, so when a custodial spot opened at Tolt Middle School, he took it. He liked the feel of the job — he could get involved with the students but not tied down to an indoor routine.

"I don't like being cooped up with 30 kids inside four walls," said Uzuner, who has two adult sons. "With this job, I keep moving, I stay fit."

The recycling at Tolt began as a team effort between Uzuner and another custodian, Gail Smith. But Uzuner created the recycling club on his own, and has nurtured it through the years, hoping to introduce hundreds of teenagers to a lifelong passion.

One of King County's "Earth Heroes," Uzuner has taken classes through the county's solid-waste division, earning the title of "Master Recycler Composter."

And his recycling club has led the school's participation in the King County Green Schools program. One of a few pilot schools chosen, Tolt ultimately reduced its garbage volume by more than 15 tons and saved $3,000 in fees for garbage collection and rent for garbage bins.

Each year, Uzuner chooses a leader for the recycling club. He met this year's leader during lunch detentions, where the boy was assigned the task of cleaning the lunchroom with the custodian.

As they folded up the tables, the two would talk about "helping out the fish." After several talks, Matt Cattin got interested in the whole recycling thing and Uzuner made him the leader of the club.

"He chose me over everyone else, so I'm going to do the best I can do," Cattin said.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com


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