Recycling and waste reduction for all seasons

We are lucky enough to live with four beautiful seasons here in Wisconsin, and each one presents new opportunities for us to reduce our impact. Look through the activities below to learn about things you can do each season to reduce waste and recycle more.

Winter holidays

Reduce waste and save money this holiday season

Giving and sharing during the holiday season can add up to additional waste with extra gift wrap, extra packaging, disposable dishes, leftover food and more. But we can make small changes in some of our holiday habits to reduce additional waste and save money.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the volume of household waste increases by 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. That's about one million extra tons being sent to landfills across the country each year. Consider these suggestions to prevent that extra waste this holiday season.

Holiday decorations and parties

Holiday lights
Recycle your old holiday lights.

  • Have lights that no longer work? Many companies accept used light strings for recycling and may even offer a discount on new lights. Check with your local retailer or search online for details. Check with your local recycling program, too – they may take string lights for recycling during the holiday season.
  • Replace old string lights with energy-efficient LED lights.
  • Use a timer to turn off holiday lights when no one is awake to enjoy them.
  • At holiday parties, use washable plates, cups, silverware, tablecloths and napkins instead of disposables. Divide leftovers in reusable containers among guests so extra food is eaten and not wasted.
Gift-giving and wrapping
  • Give your family and friends state park or trail passes, gift cards for a lunch out, or tickets to a concert or sports game. Giving experiences, rather than things, creates memories that last and creates much less waste.
  • Look for gifts with little or no packaging, or packaging that can be easily recycled or reused.
  • Bring your own reusable bags when you go out to shop.
  • Look for presents that are locally produced. In general, local products reduce energy costs and greenhouse gases because they don't need to be shipped long distances.
  • Wrap gifts in Sunday comics or old maps. Reuse brown paper bags from the grocery store as gift wrap dressed up with colorful ribbons or bows.
  • Buy gifts that will last and can be used over and over again. Avoid disposable items.
  • Look for rechargeable batteries for holiday gifts requiring battery power.
  • Buy items made with recycled materials.
  • When gifts are being opened, have a bag ready to collect wrapping paper for recycling (most is recyclable, except for the foil type).
  • Save gift boxes, gift bags and bows to wrap future birthday presents or to use next holiday season. Recycle the boxes that are torn or no longer useable.
Holiday cleanup
  • Save holiday greeting cards to use as post cards or gift tags next year. If you do toss them, make sure they go into recycling.
  • Put cut trees in a corner of the yard to provide winter cover for rabbits and birds. In the spring, chip the tree and use it for mulch.

For additional ideas that kids can do to help green the holidays, visit EEK! Environmental Education for Kids! Trash to Treasures for the Holidays.

Fall yard care

Fall yard care

That swish and crunch of autumn leaves underfoot is the sound of opportunity. Mulching leaves and composting yard materials allow residents to protect the state's air quality and public health, reduce costs for local governments and households and relieve communities and the environment of the hazards of burning. A growing number of communities have local rules in place that further restrict or completely prohibit burning yard materials.

Using leaves for mulch and compost can also enrich the health of lawns and gardens, save money on fertilizer and save municipalities money on yard waste collection. Try one of the following easy methods to manage leaves, branches, grass clippings and other yard trimmings.

Autumn leaves sparkle in the sunlight
Autumn leaves sparkle in the sunlight.

Home composting

If you would rather compost your leaves, there are many easy structures you can build to start a compost pile. Be sure to maintain a mix of "browns" (fallen leaves, dead plants, coffee grounds and small branches) and "greens" (grass clippings, green plants and food scraps). Finished compost can be sprinkled into lawn soil or used in a garden to provide organic material and nutrients. Ultimately, this builds soil organic content and reduces the need for fertilizers.

Mulching leaves in place

Leaves are rich in carbon, phosphorus and potassium – all essential nutrients needed by plants, including turf grasses. Mow leaves along with the grass during fall and leave the finely chopped material on your lawn. Another option is to rake up the leaf pieces and use them as winter ground cover for gardens and around trees and shrubs. This will help insulate plants and protect them from winter freeze damage.

Man pushing a mulching lawn mower
Mulching leaves returns nutrients to the soil.

Keep leaves handy for next season

Dry leaves keep well in plastic bags, and many people keep a few bags of leaves from the fall to add "browns" to their compost piles throughout the year. You can also use your stored leaves for mulch. In the spring, spread them on your garden and around trees and shrubs to save on the cost of buying new mulch.


Green your Halloween

Make a commitment to celebrate a "green" Halloween this year and reduce your impact on the environment. The celebrations traditionally associated with the holiday can create extra waste and pollution, and alternative options make for a more creative and family-friendly event. These tips will help you to reduce, reuse and recycle this Halloween season.

Scarecrow decorations
Save money and resources by using the same decorations year after year.

Get creative with decorations

Use natural Halloween decorations like gourds, pumpkins and cornstalks, or get together with family and friends to create your own. Use recycled paper to make window decorations like spiders, pumpkins or witches' hats. Cut paper grocery bags into Halloween lanterns, or paint them white for ghostly effects. Make a graveyard scene with paper tombstones and spooky trees. After Halloween, send your decorations on for another round of recycling.

DIY or thrift your costume

Instead of buying a Halloween costume that you or your children will wear once and throw away, test your creativity and create a costume from items you already have around the house. You can also find inexpensive costumes and supplies from thrift stores or yard sales. Some parents organize costume trades, where kids choose from available, reused costumes. Once your kids are done with this year's disguise, pass the favor on and donate their old costumes for someone else to enjoy.

Trick-or-treat with a reusable bag

When your family goes trick-or-treating this Halloween, carry reusable bags or containers that don't need to be thrown out after use. Cloth or canvas bags, or even pillowcases, are terrific eco-friendly choices to paper or plastic bags, or molded plastic jack-o-lanterns.

Seasonal gourds
Gourds make great natural Halloween decorations and can be placed in the compost after the season is over.


If you don't already compost, Halloween is a great time to start. You can add post-Halloween jack-o-lanterns to your compost bin, along with fallen leaves, food scraps and other organic yard and household waste. See composting at home for more tips on how to begin composting.

Walk, don't drive

If possible, stick close to home this Halloween and walk from house to house instead of driving to reduce your fuel use and air pollution.

Back to school

Go back to school green

Back-to-school time is right around the corner for many families. Judging from the number of fliers clogging mailboxes, going back to school means new stuff—notebooks, calculators, clothes, backpacks and more. This year, as you embark on your shopping trips, consider these suggestions for reducing waste as you prepare for the school year ahead.

School supplies
Buy items with recycled content
  • You can reuse many school supplies from year to year. Save and reuse notebooks with paper left in them; folders that are not too battered; and backpacks, binders and calculators.
  • Several programs and organizations accept donated school supplies to send to needy schools around the world. If there are items you can't reuse yourself, consider donating.
  • When buying new school supplies, look for paper and plastic products that contain recycled content. On notebooks, folders, and other paper products look for statements like "made from recycled content" and "30% post-consumer paper."
  • As much as possible, purchase supplies in bulk and with minimal packaging. This keeps materials out of the waste stream and reduces the need for new materials.
Lunches and snacks
  • Instead of plastic or paper bags, use reusable cloth bags and plastic containers. Invest in a reusable plastic or metal container for carrying drinks, rather than purchasing single-use water bottles or juice boxes. This will save you money and reduce waste.
Clothing, electronics and other supplies
  • Last year's clothes, shoes and backpacks may no longer fit your growing kids. If you have clothing or sporting goods that are in good, usable condition, consider donating them to local thrift stores, charitable organizations or clothing drives. Donating keeps your old belongings out of the trash loop, and helps those in need.
  • If you are replacing computers, printers, calculators or other electronics, consider donating or recycling them. Many organizations will accept donations of working electronics. E-Cycle Wisconsin makes recycling electronics easier by providing a list of collection locations across the state for items like computers, printers, cell phones and more. See how to recycle electronics for more information.
Everyone can recycle

Back-to-school season is a great time to talk to your kids and their teachers about the importance of waste reduction and recycling. When you're going through last year's supplies, talk to your child about how to reduce the amount of waste they create, reuse what they can and recycle the rest, and why this is important. Talk to your child's teacher about teaching and using recycling principles in the classroom.

The DNR's Environmental Education for Kids! (EEK!) has potential recycling activities.

Get more information on waste reduction and recycling at school from our Green and Healthy Schools program.

Green moving

Green your move

Help keep reusable items of the waste stream.

There are many ways to avoid overflowing garbage cans - reduce, reuse, recycle and donate.

Whether it's the big apartment switchover in a college town or a job opportunity that sends your family to a new community, moving means dealing with—and often throwing out—a lot of stuff.

Although some waste is to be expected with moving, there are simple steps you can take to make your move greener. Review our checklist to see what you can do!

  • Before moving week rolls around, have a plan to pack and organize what you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. Approaching moving with a plan will give you more time to think about what to throw away, what to reuse and what to recycle.
  • If you know your moving date well in advance, consider having a rummage sale or donating items you don't want. This way you can reduce what you have to deal with at the last minute.
Help keep reusable items of the waste stream.
  • Consider reusing boxes from previous moves, or boxes from businesses. Many retailers will offer you their used boxes if you ask. Similarly, cloth bags, laundry baskets and large plastic containers are an easy, reusable way to get you from one home to another. If you're using a moving company, it may have reusable materials you can use, especially to protect larger items.
  • In addition to containers, look for recyclable or reusable options for packing fragile items. Use newspapers to wrap dishes or T-shirts to wrap pictures and breakables. If you do use bubble wrap or Styrofoam, save it after your move to give to friends or reuse yourself.
  • Cleaning supplies can be taken with you, or left to new tenants. Ask your landlord about their policy on leaving reusable supplies for future tenants.
  • Donate items you don't want to take with you to thrift stores, charities or other organizations in your community. Donating keeps your old belongings out of the trash loop, and helps those in need. Most organizations accept donations of clothes, household goods, furniture and some electronics. Look for charities such as Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul and contact them in advance so you know what they accept. You can also contact your college/university or community recycling program to see if they have set up any special donation sites.
  • In addition to charitable donation, look for free "stuff exchange" sites that some communities operate, or use print or Internet classified ads to sell more valuable items.
  • When furnishing your new home, consider purchasing used furniture, plates, silverware, etc. By purchasing secondhand, you are reducing the need for new materials and saving money!
  • If items are no longer in usable condition, recycle them. Recycling is available throughout Wisconsin for many plastics, paper, glass and metal items. Some communities and retailers have drop-off sites for recycling materials you can't throw in your usual bin, such as plastic plant pots and running shoes. For more information on what can be recycled in your community, and where to recycle other materials, see Recycle More Wisconsin [exit DNR].
  • Recycle old electronics like computers, printers and cell phones. E-Cycle Wisconsin provides a list of collection locations across the state . See a list of collection sites and more information on E-Cycle Wisconsin.
  • If you will be getting rid of any large appliances, check with your local recycling program to find out if you need a special permit or pick-up registration for the appliance to be recycled.
  • Use caution when disposing of household hazardous wastes. Materials like paint, chemical cleaners, some electronics and others need to be disposed of properly to prevent damage to your health, or those around you.
  • If you are performing any demolition or construction on your home before moving, look into household reuse and recycling programs in your area. Organizations such as Habitat ReStore accept doors, wood, light and bathroom fixtures, cabinets and many other items in good condition that can be reused. Other businesses or programs accept scrap wood, metal, parts, carpeting and other products for recycling. If you're buying new products or materials, ask your retailer about recycling and reuse options, or contact your local recycling program. See the Wisconsin Recycling Markets Directory [exit DNR] for a searchable list of recyclable materials and locations.
Responsibly dispose
  • Check with your community's garbage program to see if there are special requirements for disposing of large items (such as mattresses and furniture). If you are in a college neighborhood or other area where a large number of people are moving at once, check with your community garbage collection program to see if there are special collections or rules for the big move-out day.
  • See Recycling and composting for more information on proper disposal of certain materials.

Home remodeling

Home remodeling for residents

Adding a new deck? Slapping on a new coat of paint? Finally fixing the roof? When improving your home, you can reduce, reuse and recycle, saving money and protecting the environment as well.

Make a plan

Before you begin a house project, consult the DNR's Planning Your Demolition or Renovation Project [PDF], a step-by-step checklist for evaluating hazards, keeping your home and family safe and providing recycling and waste disposal options. Although the checklist is geared toward commercial and industrial projects, it still provides helpful information for homeowners. It is also available in Spanish [PDF]. Additional information can be found on the DNR's construction and demolition pages.

An open can of red paint, with a paintbrush
Find uses for leftover paint. Leftover oil-based paints are considered a household hazardous waste.

Conserve paints and stains

The easiest way to avoid wasting paint is by purchasing only as much as you need for the job. If you have leftover paint, find use for it in other projects or share it with a neighbor. Paint and stain outdoors with dark colors that will not need excessive cleaning or re-coating over the years.

Dispose of leftovers safely

Check product labels to see if you are using hazardous materials and be sure to store them safely, reuse them when able and dispose of them properly.

  • Water-based and latex paints are generally non-toxic but should be air-dried (or mixed with an absorbent like kitty litter) until solid before being placed in the trash.
  • Solvent-based or oil-based paints are toxic and flammable and can contaminate drinking water if disposed of improperly. They should be treated as household hazardous waste.

The DNR's Household HazWaste Management Guide [PDF] is an easy reference sheet for determining how to dispose of various household products. Contact your local collection sites [PDF] to learn whether they accept paints, solvents, stains and household cleaning products. You can also use the program search tool at the Solid & Hazardous Waste Education Center [exit DNR].

A pile of discarded roofing shingles
Used asphalt shingles, like these, can be collected and recycled.


If you are re-roofing a house, you may be able to recycle your asphalt shingles. Check with your roofing contractor to see if they will recycle shingles. Recycled shingles can be used in road repairs and kept out of landfills.

Reuse home fixtures

When possible, preserve doors, wood, light and bathroom fixtures, cabinets and other items in good condition that can be reused. Organizations like Habitat ReStore accept these items for reuse in home and other building projects. Other businesses accept scrap wood, metal, carpeting and other products for recycling. See the Wisconsin Recycling Markets Directory [exit DNR] for a searchable list of recyclable materials and drop-off locations.

Recycle home debris

A pile of scrap drywall
Sorting home debris into piles like this one makes it easier to collect and recycle.

When building up or breaking down, create a designated "to recycle" pile where you can collect wood, plastics, glass and metal items. Some communities and retailers have drop-off sites for recycling materials not collected with general curbside service. For more information on what can be recycled in your community, and where to recycle other materials, see Recycle More Wisconsin [exit DNR] or the Wisconsin Recycling Markets Directory [exit DNR].

Furnishing the addition

The Green Building Products Guide [exit DNR] presents an easy way to find reused and recycled building materials for your project. When furnishing your new addition, consider purchasing used furniture and other furnishings. By purchasing secondhand, you are reducing the need for new materials and saving money!

Last revised: Tuesday November 25 2014