Clark
Jean Clark

by GRAY RUSSELL
Special to Montclair Local

When Montclair resident Jean Clark was a little girl, her family spent summers at the Adirondack camp owned by her grandfather, C.W. Anderson. There, during the 1930s, she developed a love and an appreciation for the natural world around her.

But her role as a true environmental visionary came later in life.

Clark’s family had been in Montclair since the 1800s – her grandfather donated the land that became Anderson Park to this community – and she lived here for her entire life, until passing away last week, at 95.

Ms. Clark was a nationally recognized recycling pioneer, creator of one of America’s very first community recycling centers – collecting and selling household newspaper, glass bottles, and metal cans – right here in her hometown.

As a young woman, Jean was a bird lover, able to spot and identify many different species. Then, in the late 1950s, author Rachel Carson began describing the toxic effects of DDT on birds, and this affected Jean deeply.

“Silent Spring” was published in 1962, and by 1970 Jean was on the Board of the NJ Audubon Society, and a leader of the Montclair Bird Club.

Ms. Clark once said that another crucial factor which pushed her to protect the planet was “…the first photo of Earth from space [taken by Apollo astronauts in 1968]: that was a really emotional moment. It made us realize that our planet was beautiful, and actually small, and we had to take care of it. So I thought: the 1st rule has to be: “Don’t Trash It!””

In 1971, she started a volunteer recycling drop-off center in Montclair, staffed by her and other town residents; they initially accepted newspaper and glass. The township gave them a space across from the DPW Yard at 219 North Fullerton Avenue.

“We built these concrete bins,” she explained. “We became quite popular with kids (and adults), because they loved to come to the “Recycling Center”…to throw their glass bottles against the concrete walls!”

Jean found brokers to buy the recyclables, and it soon became a model for municipal and county recycling programs that followed statewide – and nationwide.

“Newspaper and glass were the two main economic drivers for scrap in New Jersey”, she said. “Montclair became a model recycling program because we ran it like a business.” 

Eventually, the township took it over, and in 1975 passed a Mandatory Separation Act – making recycling a requirement – which was the first such law in the state. By 1978, Montclair had a town-wide curbside collection program.

“We were the first town in the state to provide this service, too – almost a decade before the 1987 Mandatory Recycling Act of NJ, which made recycling the law all across our state.”

And, New Jersey was the first state in the country with a mandatory recycling law. So Montclair was the first, of the first.

“Jean was a true recycling pioneer,” said Guy Watson president of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers (ANJR), and former recycling chief at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJ DEP). “Her efforts were crucial to the development and passage of legislation that made our state the first in the nation to require the curbside separation and recycling of household paper, glass and metal.”

Ms. Clark was elected “Recycler of the Year” by the very first National Recycling Congress in Fresno, CA; sponsored by the US EPA, the award recognized Montclair’s recycling program as one of the most effective in the country. NJ’s recycling efforts were lauded as a “model” by the US Mayors’ Conference, and Jean was the driving force behind it all.

Just a few years ago, Jean offered some thoughts about the future to a few of her acolytes.

“Keep your eye on that picture of Earth from space,” she counseled. “It’s the only planet we’ve got. And we’ve got to take care of it!”