Montgomery County honors environmentally minded people who recycle


Masoud Asgharinia poses after winning an award from Montgomery County for his active participation in organizing the recycling at the Timberlawn Crescent apartments, where he lives. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 26

To help save the planet, Masoud Asgharinia made a deal with the dishwasher.

Before I tell you about the deal, I’ll tell you about Masoud. He is from Iran. “Iran,” Masoud said, “is a beautiful country.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Beautiful people. Beautiful food and culture. Beautiful countryside.

But the leaders are not so beautiful.

Masoud ran a dairy company until the revolution changed the climate in Iran. “I could not live with that regime,” Masoud said.

So in 1984 he left. He has never been back.

Masoud journeyed first to Fribourg, Switzerland. It was in that picturesque city on the Saane River that Masoud embraced an environmental outlook he hadn’t been exposed to before: To keep the planet beautiful, all of us must do our part. Masoud decided his part would be to evangelize about recycling.

His first job in the Washington area was at the Pooks Hill Marriott in Bethesda. Working late into the night in the hotel’s banqueting department, Masoud noticed two things about the dishwasher who toiled at the back of the big kitchen: He often threw into the trash items that should have gone into the recycling, and he often had to sleep at the hotel after his shift ended because the bus he rode didn’t run late at night.

“I told him, ‘I want to give you a ride home in my car, if you don’t trash your recycling,’ ” Masoud said.

It was worth it to the dishwasher to sleep in his own bed. After that, there were nights when Masoud would fill three bags with the recyclable items the dishwasher pulled from the stream.

Masoud moved on from that job — he’s 58 and sells used cars — but he’s never stopped recycling. He’s known around his apartment complex as the guy who urges everyone to sort their trash. These efforts earned Masoud an award at last week’s Montgomery County Recycling Achievement Recognition Ceremony. Eighty honorees were feted at the luncheon celebration, the Oscars of the blue recycling bin crowd.

I was the keynote speaker, and while I confess I was initially somewhat amused that such a thing even existed, I ended up inspired by the stories I heard. The award winners were guys with their names stitched above the pockets of their work shirts and a passel of keys on a retractable chain on their belts. They were no-nonsense women from the front desks of condos, nursing homes and schools. They were harried office managers from businesses that made it easier for their employees and customers to recycle.

Montgomery has the highest recycling rate in Maryland: Sixty percent of its total waste stream is recycled. The county has an ambitious goal of raising that to 70 percent by 2020.

Single-family homes recycle best. It can be hard for multifamily homes. That sector recycles just 26 percent. That’s why Eileen Kao, chief of Montgomery’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Section, thinks the awards, now in their 15th year, are so important.

“Does [recycling] really matter?” she asked. “Yes, it matters.”

Eileen learned about Masoud when she was visiting her brother, who lives in the Timberlawn Crescent apartments in North Bethesda. When she went out to the dumpsters, she saw a man going through the recycling containers, making sure all was as it should be. It was Masoud.

“He was actually doing quality assurance on the recyclables,” Eileen said.

Masoud said he spends two hours a day bird-dogging the recycling: breaking down bulky boxes so more can fit in the bin for paper and cardboard, pulling bottles and cans from the trash, and pulling trash from the recycling. If he finds clothing that’s been tossed, he collects it for those used clothing bins you see around town.

Masoud suspects that many of his neighbors think he is the trash man. Not everyone appreciates his efforts. One woman threatened to lodge a complaint with the leasing office after he pointed out that much of what she was throwing away belonged in the recycling.

“You’re going to complain about me?” Masoud told her. “I’m going to complain about you.”

Recycling, after all, is the law of the land.

I asked Masoud why he bothers. What, really, can one man do when faced with a mountain of trash?

“When I go home, I feel good,” Masoud said. “When I sleep, I feel good. When I recycle, I think I’m helping 7 billion people. I’m helping the next generation.”

And now he has a plaque to prove it. Naturally, it’s made of 100 percent recycled material.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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