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Erik Rathmann: Western’s Sustainability Hero

Jason Rathmann rolls two recycling bins out to a curb to be picked up by waste management services.

“I honestly don’t know what we would do without him”
-Jason Grosse, Custodial Supervisor

When Erik Rathmann was called to Western’s South Conference Room in the University Center on February 28, he wasn’t sure what was happening. But as soon as he stepped into the room, it became clear the first part of the meeting was all about him.

Rathmann stared at his shoes, clearly unnerved by the attention. But before long, he realized he could hold his head high. He was there to be recognized as a hero.

The Sustainability Hero Award is a recognition of Rathmann’s involvement in Western’s Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society and his nearly singlehanded, herculean effort to keep the University’s recycling program on track.

Student Erik Rathmann sorts through a recycling bin and to pull out any trash that doesn't belong there.

A Passion for Conservation

The senior, majoring in Biology with an emphasis on Wildlife and Conservation, discovered he wanted to spend his career working to protect the natural environment during an advanced biology class in high school. He started at Western in the Fall of 2020 with a focus on ecology and natural resources but quickly made the switch to study wildlife.

During his second year at Western, he joined the Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society and soon stepped into the role of vice president. With most of the officers graduating, he stepped outside his comfort zone to run for president, and since “there were not many other members looking for an officer role, I decided to take up the position of President,” he said.

Leading the Way in Conservation Education

As a leader in the Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society, Rathmann’s job is to get young biology majors interested in conservation and encourage them to get involved in the field. Part of that is traveling to, and hopefully presenting research, at national and state conferences. They’ve been doing that consistently since 2022.

Around the same time that he stepped into leadership roles with the Wildlife Society, Rathmann was looking for work. And while recycling aligned with his interests and ethics, he didn’t seek it out as a personal mission. He went to Custodial Supervisor Jason Grosse to get a job on the campus recycling team because it didn’t require work-study eligibility and provided him with a steady paycheck.

Going Above and Beyond for Recycling

Back then, Rathmann and a fellow student were working together to go to dozens of bins across campus to collect and sort all of the University’s recycling, then take it to the County’s recycling center. Then his help left, and Rathmann was on his own collecting, sorting, and taking between 9,000 and 19,000 pounds of recycling across town every month.

Last year, the University signed an agreement with Waste Management to provide single-stream recycling services to campus, which means the recyclable waste doesn’t need to be sorted any longer. But it still needs to be collected, and that job falls mostly to Rathmann.

“Last semester, I had some help from a couple of students, who both happened to be fall term graduates,” he said. “So now I’m on my own again, and we’re still looking for some students to hire.”

The Sustainability Hero

Without him, Director Grosse doesn’t know what he would do.

“If Erik wasn’t as dedicated as he is and worked as hard as he does, it would be hard to say what would happen with our program! I honestly don’t know what we would do without him,” Grosse said. “He is graduating this spring, so I’m scrambling to find more student workers but not having much luck. Based on historical trends, I will need two to four people to replace him!”