Collecting "e-waste" is an interfaith effort

May 11, 2006

MARQUETTE, MICHIGAN, United States — Just nine years old, Eve McCowen was dwarfed by the huge piles of unwanted electronic equipment that quickly accumulated in the parking lot of the Messiah Lutheran Church on Earth Day 2006.

But she was nevertheless one of the first to run up to an arriving car that needed to be unloaded as residents brought old stereos, defunct computers, and broken television sets for recycling.

"Recycling is good for the environment because when you throw stuff away it can get in the earth's soil and water and that isn't good for the earth," said Eve, the daughter of Dennis and Lisa McCowen of Marquette.

Eve is also a Baha'i, as are her parents, and they were among the nine Baha'is from Marquette who participated in the second annual Earth Keeper Clean Sweep on 22 April 2006, which is designated as Earth Day in the United States and many other countries.

The effort collected more than 300 tons of "e-waste" -- electronic equipment like television sets, computers, VCRs, and the like that are not otherwise easily recycled -- from various sites in across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a sparsely populated region north of Lake Michigan.

The Earth Keeper event also showed how faith communities can collaborate on local and regional projects for the common good.

In this case, more than 350 volunteers from some 120 churches, temples, and faith communities across the Upper Peninsula participated. Represented were: Baha'is, Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Unitarian Universalists. All totaled, the faith groups represented have some 130,000 members in the region.

"This is historic and I hope it is a model that can be duplicated throughout the country and the world," said Rodney Clarken, a Baha'i and one of the original signers of the Earth Keeper Covenant. "We often see faith communities arguing and even killing one another -- we have here an example of spiritual leaders and their communities uniting."

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Dr. Rodney Clarken, a Baha'i and one of the original signers of the Earth Keeper Covenant, at left, looks on as "e-waste" is collected in a recycling bin in Marquette, Michigan. Also shown are Jean Soderberg (background, center) and Dennis McCowen (in red). All are Baha'is and all were participating in the Earth Keeper Clean Sweep on 22 April 2006. (Photo by Greg Peterson.)

"I believe the overwhelming response to the local initiatives to collect hazardous wastes last year and electronic wastes this year has largely been the result of all the faith communities uniting to support this endeavor," said Dr. Clarken, who is a professor of education and director of field experiences at Northern Michigan University (NMU) in Marquette.

"Without the force of religion to sustain and inspire moral action, little can be accomplished," Dr. Clarken said.

Carl Lindquist, director of the Central Lake Superior Community Partnership and the event's organizer, said Baha'is were a "key partner" in the event.

"They were very enthusiastic, and very well informed about the issues," said Mr. Lindquist, adding that faith groups in general were critical players in raising public awareness about the event, and then motivating people to take action.

"As the director of a non-profit environmental organization, who has also worked at the state and federal levels, we have been trying to do public education and efforts like this over the years -- and I've never seen anything more effective than this, ever," he said.

With faith groups, Mr. Lindquist said, "when you send the word out, they listen and they respond."

The annual clean sweep is sponsored by the Central Lake Superior Watershed Partnership, the non-profit Cedar Tree Institute, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and the various faith communities that participated.

Last year's Clean Sweep collected about 46 tons of household poisons like pesticides, herbicides, mercury, car batteries and lead-based paints. More such household hazardous waste was collected in three hours than the Upper Penninsula's landfills normally see in two years.

Dr. Clarken and other Baha'is who participated said they hope that similar projects will be started by Baha'is around the world.

Dr. Clarken said that such projects can help "break down the artificial barriers we have constructed between religions, nations, cultures, and the world in which we live.

"May these efforts reinforce a hundredfold our work toward creating a world in which all people can live in peace and prosperity," said Dr. Clarken.

Rehema Clarken, a 27-year-old NMU graduate student and the daughter of Dr. Clarken, said the project offers an important lesson because "so many people from so many different faiths pulled together to complete a project that really benefits our community."

"Whatever differences we might have in our religious beliefs, we have become united in service," said Ms. Clarken.

Vicki Lockwood of Marquette said the Earth Keeper event helped her to understand better various Baha'i principles, such as the importance of service and the concept of unity in diversity.

"This instills the concept of unity, and unless you center on your commonalities you won't accomplish much," said Ms. Lockwood. "We were all working with the concept of keeping these products out of the landfills and keeping pollution off the ground and out of the air."

Jean Soderberg, a nurse and a Baha'i since 1993, agreed that the chance to work with other faith groups offered an important model.

"Protecting the environment is the responsibility of everyone on the planet if we are to continue to enjoy the bounties God gives us," said Ms. Soderberg. "Doing this through a faith-based organization is an even more rewarding opportunity."

-- Reported by Greg Peterson