Skip to main content

Green Teen


Recycling is good for the environment. It can also benefit a community in surprising ways. Mateo Lange, 15, knows this well. On weekends, you’ll find him sorting through glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans in his hometown of Indian River, Michigan, where he leads a community recycling program.

OPERATION: TRASH Mateo (left) and his sister sort through bottles and cans outside their home.


Mateo launched the program in 2020. He was 11 and in the sixth grade, playing baseball with the Northern Michigan Cyclones. The team was new and needed money to travel to tournaments. Mateo pitched a plan.

“There were cans and bottles always thrown around the road,” he tells TIME for Kids. In Michigan, these can be collected and redeemed for cash. With his dad’s help, Mateo started a bottle and can drive. It raised $7,500. “We built up so much money in the span of just a few weeks,” he says. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we keep this going as long as we can?’”

TRAVEL MONEY Mateo started his recycling project in 2020 to raise funds for his baseball team, shown here.


Since then, Mateo says, his recycling effort has raised $350,000 and helped at least 50 local youth groups. It has also prevented more than 2 million bottles and cans from littering the roadside and polluting Michigan’s lakes and rivers. “It’s kept our community a lot cleaner,” he says.

PROTECTING WATERWAYS Mateo cares about keeping plastic pollution out of rivers and lakes.


Cash for Trash

Michigan is one of 10 states with a beverage container deposit law. That means the cost of a can of soda or a bottle of water includes an extra charge called a deposit. In Michigan, the deposit is 10¢ per container. To get the money back, you return the empty container to the store. In 2022, Michigan’s return rate was nearly 76%.

Container laws are intended to reduce litter and protect the environment. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan paused its return program. “All these big stores weren’t letting people bring their bottles and cans back,” Mateo says. “People just had to pile them up in their garage.” His bottle and can drive gave people a way to get rid of their returnables. Dropoffs could be made outside his dad’s office.

Matteo and his dad also did pickups. “We would borrow my grandpa’s truck,” Mateo recalls. “I’d just run [out], knock on the door, and say, ‘I’m here to pick up.’ I’d grab the bags and haul them to the truck, throw them in the back, and we’d drive back” to sort them, Mateo says. Then they’d return them directly to the beverage distributors for reimbursement. “It was actually a lot of fun,” he says, “especially in the summertime.”

FAMILY ASSISTANCE Mateo’s sister and father have helped him with his recycling project.


Helping Hands

In 2023, Mateo was awarded a Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. The award honors kids and teens who are working to help others and protect Planet Earth.

“It feels humbling,” Mateo says, when asked about all he’s accomplished with his cleanup effort. “I am happy knowing that all these teams and clubs and kids around the community are benefitting.”

Mateo believes everyone can—and should—be of service. “Just do a little bit to help make the world a little bit of a better place,” he says.

“Be creative,” he adds. “Have an idea and build on it.”


We’re looking for students who are planning to complete acts of service in their community this summer. Ready for a challenge? Click here to find out how to play Service Stars Bingo!