Resource Recycling doesn’t publish obituaries nor print memorials for those recycling leaders who have passed. The principal reason is we do not want to judge who should be honored and who should not. Each and every person who has left us deserves accolades.
But I now break this rule for one key reason. If there ever is a person this magazine should honor, it’s Steve Apotheker, who passed away June 20 after a long battle with Multiple Systems Atrophy, an ugly and debilitating disease. Much of the success of this periodical and its sister operations are due to Steve’s decade of dedication to this journal as its technical editor. But Steve was much more than just a fine journalist.
I met Steve many years ago and I knew immediately he was someone I needed on my team. I have a typical story. I was hired to design the recycling program for Champaign, Illinois. After only a little on-site research, I knew that a successful program had to involve Steve, given his important role as director of a local non-profit recycling organization and president of the state recycling association. One day, he took me to City Hall to meet the appropriate public works officials. Afterwards, we were leaving the building and a man from across the street yelled out, “Steve, Steve, I need to talk to you.” Steve went over and had an animated chat with the man, then came back to apologize for the delay. I asked Steve who the gentleman was who was so eager to chat with him. “Oh, that’s the mayor and he wanted my input on an important environmental issue.” I knew then that the best thing for me to do for Champaign was develop a recycling program that passed Steve Apotheker’s muster.
Steve was a learned person (he earned a master’s in physics), with an acute and well-developed analytical ability. But he never lorded these skills over you. Many times he patiently, gracefully and warmly explained to me why my analysis was badly in error, but he never made me suffer for being so stupid. He always got you to the point where you’d say, “Aha, now I get it.”
To the astonishment of many, Steve was essentially shy. On more than one occasion, Steve would be invited to speak at a major recycling event, given his renown as a key recycling scholar. He’d gracefully decline and recommend to the conference executive that Jerry speak. He’d then hand me a stellar speech to present. He would do anything and everything to advance recycling.
Steve was an environmentalist with a business sense. For many years while working for Resource Recycling, he provided informal assistance and advice to major recycling executives at Reynolds Aluminum, Alcoa, Owens-Illinois, Publishers Paper and other key companies. He aided these managers in better understanding the current dynamics of recycling out on the streets, in America’s towns and cities. And then in reverse, he’d help translate corporate initiatives and plans into terms that applied to local government recycling efforts. He was a key go-between that helped advance recycling in America in the 1990s, during our greatest growth spurt. My firm’s only contribution was Steve’s immense monthly phone bill.
Steve moved onto a remarkable career at the regional solid waste agency in the Portland area. As has been said by many, he was the environmental conscience of the agency and a beloved guru to the many skilled recycling leaders at local governments and recycling companies in the state. He earned the citations he received, including our state association’s top award and the lifetime achievement award from the National Recycling Coalition.
Steve will be missed. But people and the environment are better today because of his work and his warmth, compassion and dedication. He’s the one person for whom I’ll break my rule about published honors.