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Oster has visited some businesses for more than 10 years

Jace Laakso remembers back when 84-year-old Wilhelm Oster, better known as Willie, came into his store and asked if he had any aluminum cans.

Since that time a few years ago, Oster has just kept coming back and asking for cans. His persistence has paid off. Not only Crystal Video, but also several other businesses downtown and just south of the Higgins Avenue Bridge now save their cans for Oster.

Born in North Dakota, but living most of his life in the Bitterroot Valley, Oster has been one of Missoula's most faithful recyclers for years. It's good to recycle, he said - and he earns a little money and makes some friends, too.

"He's very friendly," said Laakso. "He's always saying hello to people."

For about five years, Oster has visited Laakso almost every day to pick up cans and talk for a while. "He's got a schedule, he's got these places he goes to every day," Laakso said.

Oster has visited Kent Bros. Automotive for more than 10 years. There, he gathers cans and scrap aluminum and copper from old car parts, said owner Steve Bierwag. And visits with the mechanics.

Missoula doesn't have the ease of curbside recycling along with trash pickup. As a result, things that can be recycled or reused are often thrown away. But by asking others to recycle along with him, Oster has saved a lot of aluminum from being thrown in the landfill.

About once a month, Oster takes his cans to the recyclers. He usually has about seven or eight garbage bags, which earn him around $50. Over the years, Oster's probably recycled more than 1,000 garbage bags of cans.

"Either I or his friend Woody take him to the drop-off place. They know him there, " Laakso said.

Along his daily walking route, Oster also picks up odds and ends that people have discarded - things he can use to make model boats. He finds old motors from Dustbusters, pieces of wood, old fishing reels and rubber tubing. Using these discarded items, Oster creates boats with a variety of mechanisms.

"He makes everything from scratch," said Dave Kirby of Reynolds Radiator, where Oster goes to find some of the parts he uses in his boats. "He's pretty proud of those boats."

"He borrows a long piece of solder every once in a while," Bierwag said of Oster's tinkering.

Oster works on his boats in a work space he has at Flor-Haven, the semi-assisted living facility where he has lived since 1981.

"He's really been a hard worker all of his life," said Kate Sensrud, co-owner of Flor-Haven.

When he's not busy collecting cans or working on his boats, Oster likes to take some time off. When it's too cold in the winter, he stays home. In the summer, he likes to test his boats in Frenchtown Pond or go fishing.

"He loves those boats and he loves to fish," said Dave Casaray of Reynolds Radiator.

In addition to making his route into a can-saving expedition and a search for future boat parts, Oster has turned recycling and re-using into a social activity, one where he can chat with friends and meet new people.

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