We brought recycling experts together to reflect on the law's 20-year success and speculate on future challenges.
A look back and ahead at recycling in Wisconsin.
Magazine staff. Story photos by Natasha Kassulke.
Editor's note: For this 20th anniversary of recycling laws in Wisconsin, we invited a panel to recall how the law developed, discuss why recycling programs have been so successful, and speculate what recycling trends might create business opportunities in the future. Our panel included (in alphabetical order):
Wolski: Thank you for taking the time to reflect on where we have come in the last 20 years, where we are now and where we are headed. Who knew that recycling programs would remain strong for so long? We want to look at how your experiences in those early years brought you to where you are. What was the tenor of the times and nature of the business to introduce this concept of recycling as a law?
Reindl: In 1969, I was in college at UW-Milwaukee. The whole issue of putting deposits on beverage containers was a big topic. I could go to any get-together and regardless of the group's age or social economic background, everybody could identify with their garbage somehow.
I recall an episode from 1987 where a small town in New York was trying to get rid of its garbage. In March, they put the waste on a barge that went down the East Coast into the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Belize and they could not get rid of that trash! It came all the way back up the East Coast in October, essentially ending up back in New York. The trash eventually was incinerated. That barge heightened public awareness, made a spectacle of waste problems and created a teachable moment. Things had to change.
At the same time the federal government finally implemented laws that required that landfills be built to certain standards. Wisconsin, I think partly because we have such strong town government, had a lot of landfills (more than 800). And people loved them in some respects – they were great meeting places. Politicians would go there before elections to meet everybody.
Wisconsin also had UW-Extension, which was unique in teaching local officials about solid waste management since the late '60s and early '70s.
Strohl: And incinerators were a popular means of getting rid of waste back in the '60s and '70s as well. So garbage, open burning and air standards came into play.
Reindl: Wisconsin also had a strong recycling infrastructure. We were the leading paper recycling state in the country. We still have lots of foundries that use scrap metal. And we are careful with our money and resources.
Strohl: Wisconsin environmental groups had pushed legislators for years to deal with solid waste problems by putting deposits on bottles and cans. Legislative session after session, that was their number one issue. Michigan had passed a deposit law about that time so Wisconsin thought why can't we? Every two years that was a big issue and for political reasons, it never went anywhere whether Democrats or Republicans were in control.
Beer brewers argued that deposits on bottles and cans would curtail sales. They believed people would go to neighboring states (to get beer) or just wouldn't consume as much. The labor unions that worked in the breweries and can industries argued they were going to lose jobs because people were recycling and not using new materials. Passing recycling legislation was a goal for years and when I became majority leader, I finally decided that we were never going to pass deposit legislation in this state and we just had to get off of that. Spencer Black had previously authored a bill to ban yard waste from landfills, and no one seemed to balk at that idea. So that same session or the following one, I introduced a bill at the end of the session that would have banned two or three items from landfills – bottles, cans and maybe newspapers. It was logical because people were already bringing back bottles and cans, and recycling newspapers.
Reindl: If I remember right, when the yard materials bill passed, Rep. Black had met with landfill operators and they said, "You know in summertime our landfills all turn green because we bring in all this mowed grass." Black said the next session he was going to introduce about 10 different bills. Then everybody said, "Whoa! We want to do a Legislative Council study and do something comprehensive."
Morgan: Another factor was a perception that what was realistic was changing. In San Jose, Calif., we saw a large-scale, citywide curbside recycling program. It was still voluntary, but the program was available to every household. And there were similar examples in Wisconsin. Fitchburg, most memorably, had curbside recycling. So we had realistic examples showing we could collect recyclables from every household.
Reindl: I think the City of Ashland was one of the first to pass mandatory recycling, then Dane County, and then the state built upon that.
Cooper: One thing I remember from that period was how many voluntary recycling programs already existed. We kept a directory and there were more than 400 programs. Some were as simple as Boy Scouts coming around on a Saturday to collect newspapers. Others were bigger, but all involved community support and activism. I think local officials were beginning to see these voluntary programs take shape and say, alright, let's all do recycling the same way. Let's all get with one program that would be acceptable and welcomed by people.
Fiedler: I was hired in 1984 part-time in Waukesha County and the county figured that after a couple of years, recycling would all be resolved and I could go away, but here I am 25 years later.
At first, our solid waste management board studied the idea of a waste to energy facility. And some very astute people on the county board started asking how could we consider this when we didn't have a comprehensive recycling program? Wouldn't we want to first divert valuable materials and then consider whether energy recovery was feasible? Our recycling study concluded that the county should be responsible for processing materials, consolidating materials and education. Communities would retain their contracts for waste collection and could determine what kind of system they wanted. Ours was a grassroots effort between 1984 and 1991 when we built our facility. Initially, there wasn't any recycling equipment and we had to jerry-rig everything. We had a portable drop-off site – an aluminum trailer with dividers, and volunteers signed up each month as we pulled that trailer to four different spots around the county each Saturday. The volunteer groups would get half of the revenue and we kept half to operate the program. That's how we got started – with a grassroots effort.
Stadelman: I started the (towns) association in 1980 and closing small town landfills forced us to look at solid waste in a different way. In most communities, new laws meant we were going to have [to either close or upgrade to] engineered landfills. At the same time we saw that the landfill siting law created tension among private waste haulers, private disposal sites and counties over waste management. That came to a head in legal battles like the lawsuit between the Town of Ringle vs. Marathon County. We lost the right to control county landfills under township zoning authority and we were going to end up with many kinds of county sites. The trade-off was that we could negotiate over these county sites, and towns wanted some local control in the negotiation process for landfills.
We saw the potential for having a lot of large landfills and the benefits of recycling. We supported recycling as a concept. One reason it was accepted was the Wisconsin law gave communities several years to prepare for recycling. It gave us a lot of time to prepare and set up recycling models around the state before the law was implemented.
Wolski: One of the things we realized was that we didn't have a real good idea of what to do with recycled materials. You needed markets. Twenty years ago, did you see the recycling law as helping create both this supply of materials and demand for recycled materials?
Strohl: Companies didn't want to start investing in equipment to make things out of recycled materials with no guarantee that the supply of raw materials would be there. So the law didn't directly require recycling. Instead, it banned landfilling certain materials. We didn't want to get into the position of requiring towns to set up recycling programs, though ultimately that's what they did.
Morgan: Looking back now, recycling seems very much a fabric of our society, but at the time this law passed, it was fairly radical. It was considered a huge change and a significant piece of legislation. There were risks, and "the market" was one of the risks people were focused on.
Reindl: I would say it is still a fairly radical concept. I don't know of any other state that has developed comprehensive mandatory recycling. A lot of states have banned tires or appliances or yard waste, but I don't think any other state has taken the lead and banned a broad spectrum of things.
Cooper: In fact, I used to get calls from reporters who would say, so what is the Wisconsin recycling goal? Is it 35 percent? 40 percent? And I would say, well, we didn't go that way. We don't have a number. We just said, "Do it." Recycle these materials. And that worked.
Reindl: We were looking at the recycling law as progress, not perfection. By saying the bans would take effect five years from now, the legislature provided five years to develop the infrastructure to collect, process and market recyclable materials. Legislators said we would give technical assistance and financial assistance. And it worked out so smoothly.
Fiedler: I want to point to the risk. We had a county recycling plan, then the state law passed, but nobody in the county really knew if this was going to work. We built this facility with a portable sorting line that you could pull bottles and cans off, then newspaper. Later we started pulling corrugated cardboard off the floor. Magazines and home office paper were added later. I am really proud of the risks Waukesha County took in building a facility that proved to be cost effective for the county's 25 communities and that privately-operated plant has been our model ever since.
Strohl: That was one of the fights. Should recycling programs be county-run or municipally- run? We didn't mandate which way communities had to go. If Waukesha wanted one facility, they could do it. If a couple towns or cities wanted to get together, we let them do it. Some went countywide, some towns wanted to keep waste collection, some cities went a different way, and the law let them do it.
Cooper: In 1995, recycling programs operated more smoothly than anybody imagined earlier. Paper markets went sky high. The mills were paying more than they had ever paid, so people were getting really aggressive about getting newspapers out of households and other places. People responded to that market price because there was money to be made. By late 1996, those markets plunged, so we began that roller coaster experience. Luckily, there often were trade-offs and when one market nose-dived, then steel would be high or eventually plastics became high, or something would offset the losses when the market went downward. That became important for the larger programs – to learn how to capture the proceeds from the sale of recyclables and become part of that market system. That was a new experience for local governments. They were not used to running an enterprise necessarily, and I think the more successful, enduring programs have figured out how to become players in that market system and that is very good.
Fiedler: Kate, you had figured that by recycling over a five-year period we had significantly reduced the number of landfill expansions or new landfills needed. That was a significant change in that whole industry.
Wolski: What do you think are some of the law's greatest accomplishments or surprises? For instance, I think anybody who had children in the 1980s was being educated by their children coming home from school and talking about recycling.
Cooper: One success was how much emphasis and budget was devoted to education. I know DNR and municipalities took that responsibility very seriously. We did our level best to reach everyone and feed people's interests and willingness to participate in recycling rather than make it a dictate. For the most part through schools and by demonstrating what was possible, education was front and center those first five years from 1990-95. Now the tonnage of materials diverted by local governments has reached a plateau and we can't expect continuing activity without some encouragement. To learn from this experience, if we are going to promote diverting more food waste or electronics recycling, I think it would be very wise to have a really strong educational emphasis.
Morgan: I think that is a very important point. I've often wished we had more sustained education. Folks weathered the storms of low markets and have continued recycling. Despite the current economy, we do not hear global challenges to end recycling. It has staying power. I think in large part that's because recycling is something practical that is practiced in the majority of Wisconsin households. We have the habit. It has touched every household, children and grown-ups. We've made local governments fans of recycling.
Reindl: A couple of years ago the City of Madison surveyed residents to find out how well they thought public services were delivered and the highest ratings that people gave were for solid waste collection and recycling. When you think of all the services a city provides, this is one service that comes to your house every single week.
Fiedler: One of the unforeseen things for me is the level of recycling technology that is here 20 years later. Who would have thought that you could mingle wastes, have single stream collection and machines could sort the recyclables instead of people? To me, that is huge.
Stadelman: The issue that I would raise where maybe we haven't done as well as we could, is getting beyond residential recycling in communities. One of the things I see around the state is very little recycling at events like county fairs, festivals and special events. We can do better.
Fiedler: I was thinking about international impacts. Who would have thought that China would be buying paper from us in the Midwest? You can understand it on the coast, but exporting Midwest metals and plastics!
Cooper: Speaking of things we didn't anticipate. We consider asphalt shingles from roofs from single family home tear-offs very recyclable now and very valuable for the asphalt materials.
Reindl: And concrete, too. And recycling construction demolition materials without any requirement by the state. It was a long struggle and it goes back to what Karen was talking about with technology. It's kind of a chicken and egg situation – Can I reuse a material if there is no technology to develop it? Compared to – is there a reason to develop technology if there is no market? In some cases we have a parallel development and have found uses for the materials.
And the whole philosophy is changing whether municipalities should be doing the recycling or whether more of the responsibility really ought to lie in the private sector. We really ought to have more responsibility from product producers to collect pharmaceuticals or collect used electronic equipment or any of these other things. Municipalities didn't create the scrap material and they don't have the expertise to take it apart. People in the paper, drugs, electronics, glass, metal and tire industries are the experts and know what is in their products. They know how to best handle them. They really ought to be taking the lead.
Cooper: I agree with that strongly. And one reason I would like to see more products addressed by product stewardship is that the recycling cost should not fall on local governments. It should be manufacturers setting up systems that bring those materials back. They are best qualified to deconstruct goods and make them into new products.
Fiedler: Part of what the product stewardship people are trying to figure out is what to focus on. Take the things that are more problematic and costly like electronics and pharmaceuticals. Ten or 20 years from now maybe the model [and mindset] will change. In a more perfect world there would be no waste, only resources; only materials that can be reused and remade into something else. The zero waste concept.
Stadelman: How do you handle contaminated goods?
Fiedler: When a company designs a computer or piece of equipment, they are going to want to encapsulate it in some way so it can be recovered and reused. Or make it so it can be disassembled more easily. Now we get stuff that is hard to take apart and potentially hazardous to the person handling it. But the manufacturers can design it differently. They have a lot of engineers who know how to design a computer or piece of equipment so it can be easily disassembled. Then third party groups can set up recovery systems and decide where they want broken, unusable products collected. Or if they want the county to continue collection, we will continue it. We just don't want to have to pay for it.
Stadelman: I was thinking more of household wastes – table scraps and things like that. I live in a rural area and we have a compost pile. But if you don't live in a rural area or you don't have that ability – it goes in the garbage and at some point this mix of wastes is not recyclable. You probably have some recyclable goods that might be contaminated in that process.
Fiedler: I'd think you might set up an organics collection program for those who can't or are not willing to compost. I live in a city and I've composted for as long as I can remember, more than 30 years. I've thrown meat scraps [in the trashcan], but I have not thrown out vegetables or the types of things that could be composted. You can do it in a city, but you have to use a better system.
Cooper: I think there are some things that lend themselves to our existing recycling model. General products that everybody throws out almost on a daily basis would continue to be collected in curbside programs, and municipalities would probably continue to have a role. But Karen began talking about product stewardship for the newer items in the waste stream that take a great deal of technical knowledge to take apart – computers and electronics are a perfect example.
Reindl: I think product stewardship works really well on the hard to handle products and for parts containing toxics. One of my concerns is a lot of households and businesses have mercury thermostats even though nobody is making them anymore in the United States. They are coming off the walls [during renovations] and somebody has to handle them. Fortunately, industry has set up a program to fund taking back and recycling these things. Product stewardship for pharmaceuticals is another example. People talk to me about nanotechnology and whether products with nano ingredients may be toxic and may need product stewardship, too.
Fiedler: In terms of pollution prevention, we (government) can never keep up. We're not developing those nanotechnologies, so we can't anticipate what their recycling or disposal is going to mean for local governments in 10 years or 15 years.
Morgan: Karen, when you say the current system isn't sustainable, do you mean basic curbside collection?
Fiedler: I mean that local governments paying for trash collection the way we do now is not really sustainable into the future. Look at budget cuts. Look at what's happening to all of us in terms of staffing and collection costs.
Stadelman: But we're still going to end up with garbage collection because it is a public safety issue.
Fiedler: We are. But not collecting everything we are talking about now. We are not going to be able to keep adding things to what we are collecting now. The costs are just going to be too high.
Strohl: Appliances, for example, which we ban from landfills, are not picked up on the curb as part of the regular recycling program. You have to pay extra for that. Oil and tires are not picked up on the curb. The government is sort of responsible for getting it done, but in some cities they are not the ones picking it up.
Wolski: We talked about food, composting and product stewardship. Looking forward, what other trends do you see in recycling?
Morgan: Some new motivations have emerged. We now know that recycling is making a huge contribution to reducing problems associated with greenhouse gases and climate change. That is going to open up a whole arena of reasons to recycle and reasons to recycle new items. That goes back to the staying power of recycling. We continue to discover new reasons why it makes sense. We stay enthusiastic because recycling is one of those rare things that we can do on a daily basis as individuals to benefit the environment. We can help solve problems that seem overwhelming and untouchable. Through convenient options, we can help reduce waste and benefit ourselves as well as someone across the world. Not just because it saves money locally, but by saving energy, using fewer resources and recycling more, we embrace that idea. In front of your trash can you renew that commitment every day? I think that's why people love it.
Fiedler: So what do we do about the e-waste bill and electronic scrap? Are we going to ban e-scrap from landfills?
Reindl: I think in this legislative session we are going to ban at least three different products from landfills – electronics, used oil filters and oil absorbents.
Morgan: I think there is also emerging interest in requiring recycling of construction and demolition waste. I think a real common thread in our discussions is that other things can be re cycled more widely than they are now, but they may not be handled as expansions of current waste collection. They may entail distinct collection and financing.
Cooper: We hope we see the day when composting organic material could earn money for local governments through carbon exchange/carbon credits or some other mechanism so companies that need those offsets would pay for composting services on a per ton basis.
Morgan: The other prediction that would be safe is that not all of us will be at the next 20th anniversary. (Draws much laughter.)
Wolski: How about a personal closing around the table?
Morgan: There is something very powerful about a program that touches people in their homes, in their kitchens and at their trash cans. I think that everyone who has been involved in re cycling has been surprised by its overwhelming success. If I could wave a magic wand and give my state anything, I'd give it a little more gumption for innovation. We need to spend some time making sure that all of the players who can make that happen – local government, state government, businesses and private sector organizations – are free to help make that innovation happen.
Stadelman: I think recycling remains a very positive initiative that had a groundswell of public support. Though local governments resist change, the public pushed us to do it for a lot of reasons. We've reached a plateau in our recycling efforts and how we improve and trigger that next step is a concern.
Reindl: Solid wastes were resources for which we had not yet found a use. We need to change the status quo. And there are two ways to get people to change. One is to have a crisis, like the oil embargo, when people changed habits immediately. But sometimes when that crisis ends, people drift back into what they were doing. The other way to effect change is through slow, incremental education. And at times that pace seems frustrating. But when I look back over the last 40 years it's amazing to see the changes that we've made, and I don't wish crisis on anybody. I hope we can take the next leap forward and use new tools to advance that spirit.
Strohl: When I look back at the success of the recycling law, I am very pleased with whatever role I played in that. Recycling is one of two things that state government has done in the last 20 to 25 years that I think are tremendously popular. The other is the "do not call" lists.
Back 20 years ago young people interested in doing things for the environment were interested in recycling. And older people, the World War II generation, all remembered that they used to do it. So the timing was right. The markets just happened to come together and landfills were closing. It was a perfect time to do this law, and had we waited 10 or 20 years, it might not have happened.
Fiedler: I've been most astonished by the dedication of the people I work with every day. My staff, the people who are in this room today, people we meet when we go to conferences, and people who just took on recycling and dedicated their lives to making it work. That to me has been very fulfilling. I'm encouraged. I see the next generation – the generation of my kids who are in their early 30s – asking the next level of questions and they are wondering why we have all this trash. They are interested in what's going to happen in the future. So carbon trading will start forcing some things to happen that we couldn't make happen because the economy wasn't set up that way. And that's something to look forward to.
Cooper: I see a new generation coming in that seems very committed and driven to come up with an intellectually sound basis for the next step in recycling. And I have some hope for them. I think global environmental climate challenge is the next crisis and those young people are preparing for action in that area. One of the pleasant surprises when tools became available to calculate the environmental impacts of recycling was we found substantial benefits in reducing gas emissions and tying up carbon from our current recycling efforts. That was sort of unexpected – nobody was tracking that benefit at all, but we can point to that record and say at least matters are better than they would have been if we had neglected to recycle all these years. I think we are moving from the original concept of saving landfill space to larger environmental goals. And we have tools that John alluded to – the ability to calculate life cycle costs, social costs and benefits of diverting the materials.
This discussion has been a lot of fun.