After eight years of recycling denim, Erek Hansen has an admission to make: He hates wearing jeans.
“I can’t stand wearing them,” he said. “I wear khakis almost every day. It’s just comfort. And they look better.”
Since he began the denim project in 2009, Erek — a 16-year-old Clay High School junior who the runs the environmental nonprofit Go Green Ohio — has recycled tens of thousands of jeans, working with groups like Habitat for Humanity to convert the material into insulation for new homes in areas destroyed by natural disasters.
But this year, with college on the horizon, Erek is ready to move on. He is holding his last ever collection drives from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Future Wave Salon, 3324 Navarre Ave. in Oregon. And after that? Hopefully the University of Notre Dame, Erek said after a morning soccer practice last week.
“It’s absolutely beautiful. It would be a great school to go to,” he said. “You have to be really good to get in there, too.”
Fortunately for Erek, he will begin the college admissions process with plenty of material for his application essays.
At 8 years old, Erek was inspired by an article in National Geographic Kids to recycle old jeans to help the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.
Eight years later, Go Green Ohio, which was known as Eco Erek until 2015, has collected more than 30,000 jeans — enough to insulate 60 homes.
More recently, Erek joined forces with Keep Toledo/Lucas County Beautiful and expanded his recycling operation to encompass shoes as well as denim.
Go Green Ohio has widespread support in the local community, said Tracey Ault, who keeps a dropbox for old jeans at the clothing resale center, called Once Upon a Child, she runs in Perrysburg.
“[Erek’s] a great example for up-and-coming youth in our community,” Ms. Ault said. “Our customers are going to be sad that the project is coming to an end. We start getting phone calls: ‘When is the box coming? When can we recycle our jeans?’ ”
Go Green Ohio has not only helped hurricane victims in New Orleans, it inspired community service in Perrysburg. The project has also come to define Erek’s adolescence, from when he was teased for his advocacy work in middle school to when he decided to step back from recycling earlier this year, said his mother, Amy Hansen, who manages the administrative side of Go Green Ohio.
“This project has in essence raised Erek into the young man that he is,” Ms. Hansen said. “We’ve seen him have to walk through some difficult things to come out the other end a strong, independent young man.”
The next question facing the mother-son duo is how to keep Go Green Ohio alive once Erek starts college in 2018.
Erek has two younger siblings — Adam, 11, and Emma, 15 — but neither is interested in continuing the project. And since no one has stepped forward to replace Erek, he and his mother are exploring ways to turn the collection drives into a community project managed by a local volunteer group rather than a single committed family.
“It has a life of its own now, and he’s OK to pass the torch, but it has to be done in the right way and done responsibly,” Ms. Hansen said. “It sounds like a great project and it’s cool, but it’s a lot of work.”
Standing next to a collection box stuffed with denim at Future Wave, Erek said he will miss the “feel of doing something” that came with his charitable work, if not the hours spent sorting through old shoes.
However, he became convinced it was time to retire from Go Green Ohio on a recent trip with his mother to South Bend, Ind., the dropoff site for the recycled shoes — and, he was quick to add, the home of Notre Dame.
“When we’re in a car, we always have a deep talk or something like that,” Erek said.
“I started to realize that college was coming at me, and I have to move on to the next chapter of my life. I need to wind this project down,” he said.
Contact David Yaffe-Bellany at: [email protected], or 419-724-6050.