Purchase The Girl Who Recycled One Million Cans by Shaziya M. Jaffer , Brad W. Rudover and Jessica Alexanderson
Jessica Alexanderson, also known as Scuba Jess, is an avid Scuba Diver and an underwater photographer based in Seattle, Washington. After noticing a concerning amount of trash in our waters, she decided to make a career change and began her work at Scrap University Kids. This educational initiative teaches children that all metal can be recycled, and everyday actions can make a lasting impact on the environment. Their book, The Girl Who Recycled One Million Cans, shares a meaningful story that teaches kids about recycling, math, community, financial literacy, perseverance, teamwork, and more.
This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe: I’m joined today by Jess Alexanderson from Scrap University Kids and one of the authors of The Girl Who Recycled One Million Cans. Thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited to talk to you! I love the work you’ve been doing, and I’d like to learn more about your background and what inspired you to start with Scrap U Kids?
Jess: Thank you! I’m excited to be here. I love BookBaby and whenever I get to speak with any of your staff, it’s a fun day.
So, I was born in New York and I’ve been moving West my whole life. I grew up in Utah and then I moved out to Washington in 2008 for my old job. I worked for Evergreen shipping for 15 years that sent cargo all over the world. It was an interesting way to see how the world works. I learned that most of the exports out of this country are actually recycled commodities. So paper, metal scrap, plastic scrap, and then all the fresh produce, etc.
This is how I met my co-author, Brad. He was one of my customers. He shipped used car batteries to Korea or Southeast Asia to be recycled and I always that was interesting. He also was one of my nicest customers – he never yelled at me (which is rare in shipping because it’s a very high stress industry). But Brad was always so down to earth and such a nice guy.
One day, I actually asked him if he was hiring in his shipping department. He asked me if this is what I wanted to do with my life. And I told him no – I wanted to do something to help the planet and I’m actually a scuba diver. I go diving all the time and take pictures of these amazing sea creatures in the Seattle area. But when I dive, I also notice so much garbage in the oceans and it’s so heartbreaking. I then realized that I need to do something about this. Then I send a picture to Brad, and he told me that all metal can be recycled.
Until that point, I never knew there was value to old rusty metal – but he told me how you just have to bring it to a scrap yard, and they’ll actually pay you for it. And then I realized that if I don’t know about this, then a lot of people likely don’t know about this either. And that’s when we decided to start this company called Scrap University Kids. We want to share all our knowledge about recycling and specifically recycling metal with the next generation. We want children to know how important it is to use metal and recycle it because metal recycles forever. And also, you can make money recycling it! We want to make it fun and easy for kids, too.
So, our company – Brad is the metal recycler, I’m the scuba person cleaning up the oceans. And then Shaziya our co-author, she’s so amazing. She’s actually an elementary school teacher in Canada. She’s been teaching for over 15 years. So, the three of us joined up and we love teaching kids about recycling and make it fun and happy.
Joe: This is so amazing. How long has this been going on? When did you start?
Jess: We started in April 2022! We recently had our first anniversary. So, it’s been over a year of doing this so far and every day I wake up and the most exciting things keep happening. This makes me realize that I made the right decision.
Joe: How do kids react when you share this message with them? Are they excited and interested in learning more about recycling?
Jess: They love it. Whenever I go read to children, I wear my shirt that says, “all metal can be recycled”. Our little mascot says it on every page as well and gives out recycling facts. I also got some stickers made – so we make it really fun. When I read to them, I will touch on the glossary of the book that shares important facts about recycling, pollution, community, and sustainability and we make this interactive. The kids come up with some amazing answers when I talk to them about the topics. Because kids are easily sidetracked, for this story, we focus only on cans and aluminum cans. All metal can be recycled and essentially every kid has seen a can before.
Recycling can get confusing for many people, not just kids. So, if we focus only on aluminum cans, it will make a big difference. We only recycle 45% of aluminum cans in this country, which is so sad because aluminum recycles forever.
Joe: So, is the percentage that low because people are just throwing these cans out?
Jess: Yes. That’s another reason why I wanted to start this company. I see cans in garbage cans everywhere I go like at the gas station, car wash, etc., they only have a garbage bin and it’s overflowing with cans. I think that people either don’t have access to recycling bins or maybe they think recycling is a scam. Or maybe they’re just lazy. I don’t really know. But we can do so much to improve our recycling rates and it makes a big difference. Brazil, for example, was able to achieve 100% aluminum recycling! There is no reason for our rate to be this low.
People need to think about the intricate process to make the aluminum. They need to think about all the people who worked in the mine to get the metal out of the planet that becomes a can. Instead, they just drink it and throw it in the trash. But if they recycle, this can be a can forever. So, we really want to fix just this one big issue.
Joe: So, when I take my recycling out every Thursday, I mix my aluminum with my glass and plastics. It all goes in the same bin. Is there a difference between where that recycling goes? How does it work specifically with metals?
Jess: So, we share information about taking metal to scrap yards. Scrap yards will pay you for your cans. Most blue bin recycling wants your cans because they will use the money from the metal to pay for the other stuff to be recycled. Plastics are not very valuable. Most plastics can only be recycled maybe 5 or 7 times and then they start to degrade. But metal can be recycled forever so a metal is a traded commodity on the market and the price fluctuates. But it has a much higher value.
Scrap yards also will take all the things you can’t put in the blue bin – like your Christmas lights, your wires, your tin foil, your wire hangers, all the things that are made of metal, but people don’t know what to do with them. Because most people assume it can’t be recycled, they just throw these items in the trash. But I want everyone to know that you can take these ite
ms to your local scrap yard, and they’ll pay you for it!
Joe: That is so interesting to me. I never knew that literally all metal can be recycled like this. It makes me realize how much metal there is out there – cans are just the beginning.
Jess: Exactly. You should save all this old metal that just sits around in your basement and garage. It would be a good project for a kid to go around (safely with a parent) and knock on doors and ask to take all of someone’s old wires and random metal. They can then take it to a scrap yard with parents and cash it in – then donate that money to a charity or just have a pizza party!
Joe: I know that this is a new endeavor, but what have been some of your biggest wins so far?
Jess: Well, we’ve been building a partnership and community with companies and those in the recycling industry. Recycling companies and companies that make aluminum cans have worked with us, have ordered hundreds of copies of our book, and have sent such great feedback. Our book is being read to children then by company leaders, teachers, and librarians. The community response has been amazing, and it gets me excited for the future.
That has been cool. We also started metal recycling events at elementary schools. We connect local scrapyards to the schools so they could just bring a bin into the parking lot and the kids could easily fill it up. We’re based in Seattle, but we did an amazing event recently at a school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It made the CBS Evening News which was amazing. They recycled almost 5,000 pounds of metal in a one-day recycling event. All the cars would drive up to the bin and dump their own metal. I think this must be our biggest win so far.
Joe: I love that. I follow you on Instagram and you’re always doing such cool stuff. I love that. You’re getting kids excited at a young age to recycle and protect the planet. This is so important. Kids don’t know the significance of recycling unless a leader like you is sharing valuable education with them and practical tools to put this into action.
Jess: We’re doing this to try to help our planet as much as possible. Our planet needs our help. Our oceans need so much help. And this is just something fun and easy that little kids can do. They can go look for cans like it’s a treasure hunt! I had a can company up in Canada called North Water. They were sending out 10 packs of water and a free copy of our book for December. I suggested ways that you can do like an Easter Egg hunt then with the kids to search for cans. There are so many things you can do to get kids excited and interested in recycling.
If we can just teach little kids that you should never, ever throw a can in the garbage for the rest of your life, it will make a big difference. Even if you can’t recycle the can at this very moment, hold on to it. It recycles forever!
Joe: When you started this project and the company, did you always think it needed a book? What made you decide to create this children’s book?
Jess: It was Brad who had the story written with Shaziya before I joined the team. They had it all worked out because Brad has two daughters, and they love unicorns. Since he’s in the metal recycling industry, his kids would always ask him about work and how he makes money. He would always just tell them – “cans”… With the book, it is easy to explain how recycling and the recycling industry works. It makes something that is complex rather approachable and understandable for kids.
That’s how we got the inspiration for the story that involves recycling and a unicorn! The little girl in the story, Ellie, decides that she wants to recycle one million cans so she can buy a unicorn. It’s such a cute and fun story. She gets her whole school involved in her mission.
The story has so many elements to it. It also has some math equations in it to get the kids counting cans and our artist Adam is just so amazing. He made the pages so vibrant and colorful. It’s just a happy story. I’ll flip through a couple of the pages here so you can see just how awesome it looks.
There are fun recycling facts plugged throughout the book, and some creative local flair. Ellie is wearing a Pearl Jam shirt – parents from the Pacific Northwest really like that addition. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the ending to the book, but the kids end up doing something else with their money and it’s just so heartwarming to see it all happen. There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the book. It covers topics like recycling, community, math, financial literacy, perseverance, sharing, teamwork, and donating.
Joe: So, what was the self-publishing process like for you? Can you share what you and your team went through as you were making this book a reality?
Jess: It was a little tricky at first because it was the first time any of us had done this and we were thinking that we had to find a publisher. But that was like trying to win the lottery. After a lot of headaches, we investigated other ways to get our book out there and I was looking around at other websites for self-publishers. Many of them had no customer service and very little information. I was getting so frustrated because I had no idea what to do and was not getting support.
But then when I found out about BookBaby, I was like, “oh my gosh! BookBaby is amazing”. You can actually call them, and they’ll answer the phone. Everyone at BookBaby answers all your questions and will help you. And there are all these guides that walk you through how to do everything. So that was really the decision-maker for us to go with BookBaby and have great customer service and our books printed in the US. We always wanted our books to be made here and I love that BookBaby uses recycled paper and has solar panels on the roof! It was the perfect fit for us.
We got through all the steps and realized how to complete every aspect of the project. Once you get the first book done, it gets easier after that.
Joe: I know that you have another book in the works! What’s the latest on your upcoming project?
Jess: Yes! We’re almost done with it and in the next book, Ellie and her friends are going around town to collect all the other metal items now that they’ve already done the cans. They’re going to get the other stuff and take it to the local scrap yard. You can see an early print of the book right here. Anyway, the book is also going to discuss the periodic table and the kids can nerd out a little bit with the science stuff.
We are also planning a future cartoon series where all kids’ shirts will have their favorite metal. Then they’re going to have little superpowers based on the properties of their metal. Their school will be called Heavy Metal Elementary. It’s going to be cute and super cool! They’ll go around the town with their wagons and gather all different types of metals. The book is just about finished. Fingers crossed that our artist can finish the file today and get it back to us. I plan to upload it to BookBaby in the first week of July. The first book came out in September. So that’s our goal again.
Joe: It seems like you and your team are always out in the community. I can’t stress how important this is for an independent author. You need to connect with readers and build a true author brand. How valuable has that been for you?
Jess: Oh my God it’s so amazing. It’s just the best feeling ever when you actually go read to the kids and see their eyes light up like that. As soon as you start reading to them, they get it. They start looking for cans to recycle right away.
I’ll do events and it’s so weird because people want my autograph! I’ll be at events or scuba dives and even when I’m in my gear, people will come up and ask me to sign their book. It’s just so important to connect with those families and those parents.
I’m doing a reading soon at a library and I’m planning on wearing all my dive gear so children can see it. Then we’re going to play some games and I’ll read the book. We also have free coloring pages on the website. So, at events, I’ll bring in all these resources and make it as fun as possible.
But year, just getting out there in the community and just talking to people. I think that’s the best way to make those connections. When you do things online, it’s just a one-by-one process and it is tedious. It is most efficient and effective to actually do an event.
Joe: You know, that is something that I think a lot of children’s book authors do – they see the value in being in front of kids in parents. I think the biggest issue is many just don’t know how to set these events up. So, what is your process? How have you done such a great job in forming connections with schools and communities?
Jess: The first thing you should do is find a community that resonates with your book and its message. For example, I recently went to a recycling convention in Nashville that had like over 5,000 people there and they all loved the book. You want to find your community and continuously build it. So, you can attend conventions, work with likeminded companies, and connect with schools at the district level. It’s easier to go at the district level because teachers have a lot on their plate and it’s not always easy to convince them to add something else to their curriculum. But I’ve found that they always appreciate the days you come in to read to the kids. They enjoy the break and allowing you to take the kids off their hands for a bit.
Joe: I think that’s good advice. Finding the audience in the community that believes in your work is so important and, in your case, it’s great that this community is doing something good for the planet! You are committed to doing something that makes a big difference for years to come. It’s really exciting how it’s grown and you’re out there signing autographs.
Jess: Whenever I see the little kids recycling, it’s just the best feeling ever. Seeing them out there, cleaning up and trying to help the planet, I love it. They are inheriting the world that we are leaving for them, and we must do a better job teaching them as much as possible so they can then pass it all down to even the next generation.
But it has been so important to get out there in the community. I’ll reach out to local stores as well. The recycling store near me actually sells my book there now. But it takes persistence and patience. I will keep emailing and keep calling until I can make a connection. You can always take a copy of your book into a store as well and usually bookstores have events where you can come in and read to customers. They are usually happy to do it since they’re getting more people in the store. So, that’s another tip you can remember and try!
Joe: This is awesome. You’re crushing it! I know the second book is on the way, but do you think there will be a series beyond just the two books?
Jess: There will be more books! We want to cover the full life cycle of metal. So, the first book is all about cans. The cans get put into a recycling bin. Then those cans go to the scrapyard and then they begin a recycling process with other metals there. The third book is going to be all about ocean shipping. This will be my time to shine to show some wonderful sea creatures. Anyway, the ocean metal gets shipped overseas and we’re going to show the melting process and how old metal gets melted down. The fourth book will be the manufacturing side – children will learn how old metal gets turned into new things like a new car or a washing machine. That old can becomes a new can!
We really want to show the full circle, so we will need 4 books to start. Then hopefully, we can do some other ocean-related things. And of course, we’ll have more coloring pages coming on our website.
This is just the beginning. We’re only on year one. We have a 30-year goal to eliminate metal from the trash so we need everybody’s help to spread the message that all metal can be recycled. It has value and you should never throw anything metal in the garbage. We’re going to be at this for a while. But these little kids can learn it now and as they grow up, they will make the world a better place.
Joe: I love that. It’s such great information to learn – even for adults. I mean, I have always known that recycling is important. I do it every day. But I don’t really know what happens to those recyclables when I put them out on my curb. I don’t really know about the process. So, everybody needs to learn about this topic.
Jess: Yes, and Brad is filled with such great knowledge about this. He’s from Detroit and his family knows all things metal and scrap. I’m still learning as well and it’s just fascinating to be on this journey. Just finding out that all metal can be recycled and aluminum recycles forever is amazing. My main wish would be that everybody just focuses on aluminum cans first and reduce as much as possible. Don’t buy things that you don’t need and reuse as much as you can. If you have to choose between plastic or metal, choose the metal one and recycle it. It might be a little more expensive than plastic but it’s overall better for the oceans and better for the planet.
As a consumer, you should be thinking about the entire cycle of production and recycling. It’s great awareness and since I was in the shipping industry for 15 years, I saw where everything went and what was being shipped. Now, I’m always looking at labels to see where things are coming from and where they are being made.
It really is amazing to learn about where items are coming from and what makes them up. Becoming a mindful consumer can make a huge difference.
It’s all exciting over here. I can’t wait to get our next book out with BookBaby.
Joe: I can’t wait either! Do you have any other final things to share with readers and viewers?
Jess: You can find the book on our website which will lead to BookBaby Bookshop! We really want to get the book out to the general public – not just the recycling communities. On our website, you’ll find the coloring pages and the fun worksheets for the kids. Then we also have a really cute photo gallery of all our readers that send us pictures with our books. If anybody wants to actually send in pictures – please do!
We also are working on this really amazing can recycling contest. It consists of 7 states and 7 elementary schools to see who can recycle the most cans from October through May of next year. Then, the can companies are going to buy copies of books to give to the kids at the schools. It’s going to be really fun! I want to keep a tally of the results on our website so stay tuned for that. There’s a lot of great content and videos on our website and I encourage everyone to check it out. And please follow us on social media!
Joe: Perfect. We will be sharing your work as well. I really appreciate you taking the time. I wish you the best in your future endeavors and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you and Scrap University Kids!