By Peter H. Milliken
Jim Petuch, the man who has personified litter control and recycling in Youngstown and Mahoning County for the past 30 years, retires Monday as county recycling director.
A native of Sharpsville, Pa., and a graduate of Slippery Rock State University, Petuch, 60, taught English in the Greenville, Pa., schools before moving to San Diego to work as Sea World’s merchandise manager.
Petuch’s litter-control and recycling career began in April 1982, when then City Health Commissioner Neil Altman hired him from among about 200 civil- service-exam takers as an environmental educator in the city’s litter-control program, which sponsored numerous community litter cleanups.
“I said ‘Well, I’m an educator,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to try for this,’” Petuch recalled.
“If it wasn’t for Neil Altman, we wouldn’t have the Green Team today. He started this whole thing,” Petuch said, referring to the name for today’s county recycling division.
In 1986, Petuch became director of the county’s litter-prevention and recycling program, which then was overseen by the county board of health. In that role, he established the county’s first permanent recycling drop-off sites and launched in 1991 the county’s curbside recycling program.
In 2001, Petuch became Youngstown State University’s first recycling coordinator and launched the YSU re:Create program, in which people donate unwanted items for reuse by others.
In 2005, Petuch returned to county government as director of the county’s recycling division, promising the county commissioners he’d increase the county’s residential and commercial recycling rate from 10 percent to 25 percent in five years, but he actually reached that goal in 2007.
“I believe in performance measurements. I believe you have to abide by what you say you’re going to do,” Petuch said. “You’ve got to be accountable,” he added.
The energetic Petuch speaks proudly of a long list of accomplishment as county recycling director:
Increasing the county’s residential and commercial recycling rate from 10 percent to 30 percent of all waste generated.
Going from 24 to 35 drop-off recycling centers.
Using the sheriff’s day reporting inmates, who provide free labor, for the collecting and sorting of recyclable materials and for litter cleanup.
Starting the business- recycling program, which now has more than 500 participating businesses and institutions.
Getting Youngstown City Council to pass, in November 2005, Ohio’s first city ordinance mandating that scrap-metal recycling facilities report their tonnages monthly to the county recycling division.
Inaugurating annual fall leaf collection and composting grants to cities, villages and townships.
Getting state grants to open two privately- owned and operated Mahoning County materials-recovery facilities that sort recyclables.
Funding the sheriff’s department for more than 20,000 litter-law enforcement investigations in the last seven years.
Petuch said his English-teaching background has helped him with the writing and public-speaking demands of his job.
He also said his acting ability, honed by his appearances in community theater productions, has helped him creatively convey the litter-control and recycling message through his costumed appearances in local parades as “the litter-control king.”
The Green Team is responsible for the recycling of almost everything imaginable, including plastic and glass bottles, metal cans, paper, electronic items, household appliances, batteries, tires, household hazardous waste, political yard signs and Christmas trees.
The trees are weighted and submerged in local lakes as fish habitat.
The Green Team’s primary revenue source is dumping fees paid by the county’s two operating landfills, the Carbon-Limestone landfill in Poland and the Mahoning Landfill in Springfield Township.
Because of increases in recycling and the recession-induced slump in purchasing and discarding, landfill dumping has declined, and Green Team landfill revenues have fallen from $3.5 million in 2003 to $2.8 million in 2011.
The funding decline set the stage for the current dispute between the Green Team and the county health department.
That dispute concerns the proposal in the Green Team’s 15-year solid-waste plan to cut Green Team funding to the county health board for inspection and water-well testing at and near the county’s two active and five closed landfills from $400,000 to $300,000 a year beginning in 2015.
County Health Commissioner Patricia Sweeney and the county’s township governments oppose this cut because they say it is a threat to the health and safety of landfill neighbors.
Petuch said, however, the Green Team provides more money to its county health department for landfill inspection and monitoring than any other Ohio solid-waste district, and he suggested that the Mahoning County Health Department could obtain grants to supplement Green Team funding for landfill inspection and monitoring.
“I’m sure the [solid waste] policy committee in January is going to compromise on a [budget] number,” for the health department, Petuch said.
Citing “personal and family reasons” for retiring, Petuch said he expects to seek private-sector employment after he leaves his $61,800-a-year county job. “I love the private sector. I think government needs to be more like the private sector,” he said.
“Whoever gets this job, I pray to God that they’re going to be passionate about it. I’m sure they will be and they’re committed to it, but this is not a job 8 to 4:30. This is weekends and evenings, too,” Petuch said of the demands on his successor in the county recycling directorship.
In retirement, Petuch also said he wants to do volunteer work at Good Hope Lutheran Church in Boardman where he is a member, take more piano lessons and return to acting in community theater.
Petuch and his wife, Kerri Jo, live in Boardman; and his son, Aaron, and daughter, Noelle, live in Tampa, Fla., but Petuch said, “I’m not necessarily moving to Tampa.”
Petuch’s colleagues in litter-control and recycling speak highly of his devotion to litter control and recycling and to the well being of the environment.
Petuch served as a mentor to Jennifer Jones, Youngstown’s litter-control and recycling coordinator, who describes him as a good listener who is flexible and receptive to new ideas and passionate about his work.
“Other people might say that maybe he doesn’t spend money where he should, but his priority is always for the health and safety of the residents of Mahoning County,” Jones said.
“I don’t see how anybody can duplicate the level of enthusiasm he has” for recycling, said Lou Vega, Green Team statistician.
“He believes in what he’s doing. ... He has a lot of tenacity,” said Mary Gresh, Green Team operations coordinator.
“He is always looking for answers to make the programs work more efficiently and to better the environment for the residents of Mahoning County,” she added.