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Jun 032010

By Tyra Damm

Rufus visits with a future recycler. Photo: Tyra Damm

One of the most recognizable residents of Frisco, Texas, is not yet 8 years old. In his short life, he has attended more school assemblies, parades and civic events than most public servants. He has posed for countless photos and received a lifetime of hugs. And he has helped shape attitudes toward clean, green living.

Rufus, a tall brown dog, is the friendly face and ambassador of Frisco Environmental Services.

“You have to have something that gives you appeal,” says Pippa Couvillion, Environmental Services Manager and Rufus’s creator. “Rufus was invented so we could have a brand for recycling in Frisco.”

The branding is pervasive. Rufus’ paw prints are found all over town – in schools, at official city events and on printed materials mailed to every Frisco home.

Real-life Rufus is a costumed character (think Mickey Mouse walking around at Disneyland) who stands more than six feet tall. He wears a bright green collar with a tag showing off the universal symbol for reduce, reuse, recycle. He encourages his human friends to give high fives and hugs. He dances. He expresses himself with enthusiasm – but never spoken words.

Cartoon Rufus is a drawn character (think Mickey Mouse in a storybook) who promotes the city’s commitment to sustainable living and reduction in landfill waste. You’ve probably seen his cheerful smile while driving around town – he’s plastered on the Environmental Services car with the thought bubble “Recycling is extremely cool.”

Couvillion created Rufus after spending years in the Frisco schools, teaching children about recycling. Before Rufus, when she did school presentations, she would sometimes borrow Frisky, the giant costumed raccoon. Or she would use a puppet.

But there wasn’t a connection between Frisky and recycling. The raccoon was already a brand for Frisco schools in general.

“I knew that we needed an identity,” Couvillion says.

She also knew that Frisco was going to continue its phenomenal growth, and she wanted to establish the recycling identity as early as possible. Attaching a child-friendly face to the recycling program just as Frisco’s population was exploding was strategic.

“I knew that in order to get the message out, you need to teach the children. You need to impact the children,” she says.

In 2001, the recycling participation in Frisco was good, but the numbers were flat.

“No matter what I did, I could have jumped up and down all day long, I couldn’t get the participation rate up,” she says. “I wanted to get the kids really involved with the program.”

The year of Rufus’ debut, Frisco homes used a small bin for recycling. Homes were averaging about 22 pounds of recyclables each month.

Now, with greater awareness and the availability of the large recycling carts, each household averages 68 pounds of recyclables each month. That’s waste that won’t fill landfills.

When Rufus visits schools, he promotes specific themes. (He visits every Frisco elementary school at least twice per school year.) One year he promoted battery recycling. This year he urged the use of reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags.

Those themes are reinforced in coloring books produced by the Environmental Services team. And each school is given receptacles for collecting those materials for recycling.

Rufus poses for a photo with a couple of young Clean It & Green It volunteers this April. Photo: Tyra Damm

Because Rufus can’t talk (though he pantomimes really well), he requires a handler. Almost everywhere you see real-life Rufus, you’ll also see Jeremy Starritt, the city’s Environmental Education Coordinator. Most kids around town know him as Mr. Jeremy.

While Rufus walks, waves and receives hugs, Starritt talks with children about taking care of the Earth. Starritt also works closely with each campus and their Green Teams — student groups led by a staff coordinator that work to promote recycling and other Earth-friendly programs. Those teams are responsible for filling the campuses’ recycling dumpsters.

Rufus was originally made possible thanks to a grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The original funds, about $42,000, were used for his custom costume and the newsletter.

Rufus is popular in Frisco, of course, but he’s also well known in environmental circles.

“We are known because of our education outreach,” Couvillion says.

Frisco’s environmental education programs have won national awards, and Couvillion and Starritt have spoken to national groups about the city’s programs.

Rufus isn’t the kind of dog who rests on past glory. He’s always trying to increase recycling participation and rates. His humans have big plans – including a new coloring book that features real Frisco kids and their contributions to reducing waste.

And Couvillion dreams of a day when Rufus has his own home at Frisco Fire Safety Town – one that can be toured in person and also online – and even his own television show.

Not bad for an 8-year-old canine.