By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- As a child, Tessa David knew "getting a new car" meant her family would continue to drive a beat-up Volkswagen bus.
Instead of buying a new vehicle, her father, who worked as an Air Force pilot by day and a pro bono bicycle repairman for neighborhood kids by night, would install a new engine. Tire and oil changes were mandatory skills to master for David and her four siblings. Her grandmother would scrape together used fabrics and sew them into fashionable dresses for them.
Years later, David, a 12-year Groton resident, realized the use-it-til-it-falls-apart mentality wasn't just about self-reliance. It saves money while keeping trash out of landfills. And after a decade of showing area towns how to best do that as director of North Central Regional Solid Waste Cooperative that she helped found, David became Massachusetts's Recycler of the Year, receiving the state honor in a fashionable blue dress she handmade with plastic bags from newspapers.
"The new thing to do now is 'upcycling,' " David quipped about the plastic bags turned into a better product -- or "upcycled" -- as a dress.
The Recycler of the Year title that MassRecycle, a statewide coalition of municipalities, businesses and organizations interested in recycling, gives out annually recognizes the recipient for his or her contribution to waste reduction. David, who has worked to help towns through the cooperative that is commonly known as MassToss, and successfully spearheaded the initiative to create the Devens Regional Household Hazardous Products Collection Center, is "very deserving" of the award, said Richard Nota, director of Harvard Public Works.
"She is phenomenal. She doesn't stop," Groton Public Works Director Tom Delaney said of David's passion for helping the residents recycle.
David stepped into the field of waste management in 2002 as a volunteer wanting to help the town of Groton secure a deal on its trash contract. David served on the ad-hoc committee to study the issue, which concluded that towns would have more buying power if they negotiated with vendors together. As a result, Groton, Littleton, Ayer and Harvard sought individual contracts through a joint request for proposal, saving money, David said.
That successful experience motivated David to do more. She worked with the state Department of Environmental Protection to create MassToss in 2005, which assists member towns with a wide range of needs, from contract negotiations to pay-as-you-throw bags to purchase, to compliance with environmental regulations.
MassToss initially had six member towns from Groton to Athol and now has 12 towns. The 10-year solid waste contracts solicited through MassToss helped Ayer save $34,600 for the term of the contract, Groton $65,000 and Townsend $34,167, according to MassToss.
In addition, David worked with Dona Neely, the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center director, to push for the creation of the regional hazardous-product collection center, which opened in summer of 2011. The center is open 20 times a year to accept products from residents in Ayer, Bolton, Devens, Littleton, Lunenburg, Lancaster, Townsend, Groton and Harvard.
Bringing multiple communities on board to share the costs for the center's operation was no easy task, Nota said. But David would passionately talk about how regionalizing such service would help the communities hold down the cost of providing the program.
"She is very positive. There is never any negative that comes out at all," said Jim Clyde, operations manager for the Littleton Highway Department, who worked on an ad-hoc committee with David on the Devens regional-center opening. "She is very level-headed and can listen to the issues and come up with solutions," Clyde said.
An industrial engineer, David said she aims for efficiency in everything she does. Nota said David is also hands-on, helping those who come to the Devens center unload their vehicles and scaling the amount of waste they brought in.
While David stressed that her accomplishments are the result of teamwork, her colleagues credit her for all she has done.
"She goes out of her way to try to solve problems," Nota said.
"She does a lot of things that slip through the cracks for us," including calling up vendors to shop for better rates, Clyde said.
David, a mother of two college-aged children, also uses recycling as her creative outlet. She has crocheted plastic bags into a bag and a dress. For the outfit she donned for the award ceremony earlier this month, she carefully ironed the blue plastic bags used to distribute newspapers, glued them together and sewed a semi-transparent layer for her skirt. She also hand-sewed the plastic into the shape of flowers around the collar of the dress.
Recycling is her way of life -- something she truly enjoys, David said.