“Eco Erek” continues economizing denim

Katie Siebenaller

        Curtice native Erek Hansen, also known as “Eco Erek,” has been collecting denim for recycling since 2009, at the age of 9 years old. What began as a single denim drive from his own driveway, the Clay High School grad has created an entire organization dedicated to collecting denim: GoGreen Ohio.
        Together with Keep Toledo/Lucas County Beautiful, Inc.; Cotton, Inc.’s Blue Jeans Go Green initiative and USAgain, Hansen and GoGreen Ohio collect denim items, such as jeans and jean jackets, along with pairs of shoes.
        Blue Jeans Go Green takes the worn denim and recycles it into cotton fiber housing insulation, which is then donated to Habitat for Humanity and communities struck by natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. In total, insulating one average-sized American home takes about 500 pieces of denim.
        Grinding up shoes in poor condition, USAgain creates material for community projects such as sidewalks, running tracks, carpet underlayment and playground mulch.
        Additionally, Hansen has donated to Project Kaisei, a non-profit organization that spreads awareness about the impact of and cleans up marine debris.
        As of June 2020, Hansen and GoGreen Ohio have collected 34,101 denim items and 19,395 pairs of shoes for recycling.
        Hansen is now a student at the University of Cincinnati (UC), working on his third year of five in the chemical engineering program. In summer 2019, he brought his passion for recycling to the UC campus by teaming up with Blue Jeans Go Green and Engineers Without Borders UC to hold a denim drive, collecting 620 denim items.
        “Since this project was important to me in Toledo, I figured bringing denim recycling to Cincinnati was a good next step,” Hansen said.
        Planning to continue expanding his reach, Hansen had intended to host a community-based drive in Cincinnati this past summer — plans that had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
        However, the pandemic was not going to completely stop him from doing something. Finding himself back home working for the summer, Hansen found the perfect opportunity to hold another local denim drive on June 27 in The Future Wave parking lot.
        “I contacted The Future Wave in Oregon and asked if I could use their parking lot like [in] previous years,” Hansen explained.  “When they agreed, we sent out a press release and notified my Facebook followers.”
        Hansen admitted the biggest challenge was spreading word about the drive on short notice. Otherwise, the pandemic drive was nearly business as usual.
        “In terms of being different from pre-pandemic drives, the only real difference in logistics was that we had to wear masks and stick so social distancing,” he said.  “We typically have drives set up so that donors can pull up to our table and we will take denim out of their cars for them, so this was pretty safe for a pandemic.
        “However,” Hansen added, “I did miss taking pictures with donors and talking to them about sustainability, since that is one of my favorite parts about holding denim drives.”
        Local donors, who were glad to see the popular denim drive return, brought in 212 denim items for recycling. Hansen was assisted by 13-year-old St. Ursula Academy student Kimi Floyd, who expressed interest in heading up local drives and community education while Hansen’s away at college.
        “Kimi has been a big help in continuing GoGreen Ohio since I have been gone,” Hansen says of his protégé.  “She reminds me of myself when I was young; she is passionate about the planet and making a difference – something that takes courage at that age.”
        Perhaps GoGreen Ohio’s biggest supporter has been none other than Hansen’s mother, Amy. When her young son approached her about holding a denim drive, she jumped right in to help his aspirations become a reality.
        “When this all started, Erek was 9 years old. I helped take him to businesses to ask in person if he could hold a drive, or borrow a storage unit, etc.” Mrs. Hansen explained. “Because of his age back then, I had many other roles as well, sending press releases to newspapers to spread the word about scheduled  denim drives, loading the denim up to take to storage units and repackaging when it was time to ship. There were  a lot of logistics to coordinate, along with taking pictures and creating a website and Facebook identity to share the good work being done.”
        Though Hansen does most of this work himself now, his mom still offers her help when needed.
        Raising an activist has certainly been a unique experience for Mrs. Hansen, but one she embraced, she says.
        “I don’t think that, as a parent, you have the thought ‘I’m going to raise an activist,’ however, I do believe that it is our responsibility to raise children to be aware of issues that society as a whole is still trying to figure out, and how they can perhaps  make a choice to make a situation better, or offer a solution. By equipping children with that knowledge, you will raise change-makers and problem-solvers.
        “Listen with an open heart to their ideas, and give them a chance to share their viewpoints on any issue with you,” she said. “With the best of your ability, try to support what they are passionate about, no matter how big or small.  Change only comes from action.  We have always taught  our kids that, ‘it only takes one person to make a difference.’ There will always be obstacles and challenges, but your willingness to listen and problem solve with them will develop change-makers.”
        Hansen also encourages students to follow their callings, no matter what age. “I would say to anyone interested in activism to please get involved and follow your passions.”
        With the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, Hansen is holding off on making plans for future drives at the moment. For more information about Hansen, GoGreen Ohio and other recycling resources, visit gogreenohio.org. Follow GoGreen Ohio on Facebook at facebook.com/GoGreenOH to stay up to date on drives,


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