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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Consigned to the scrap heap. When the motivation is strong enough, waste is recycled and reused. © State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Wisconsin's war on waste

Every generation re-examines wasteful habits.

Lissa Radke


Consigned to the scrap heap. When the motivation is strong enough, waste is recycled and reused.

© State Historical Society of Wisconsin
sesquicentennial logo

A 10-year-old boy bundles his family's newspaper at the curb every Monday morning. A father adds food scraps to leaves and grass clippings in the backyard compost pile. Office workers keep office paper in special bins next to their garbage cans. All are habits that Americans had 50 years ago, lost and have redeveloped as we have rediscovered the value in wasted resources.

Approximately 97 percent of Wisconsin residents say recycling is now a regular part of their lives at home, work and school. Tough laws and progressive incentives have made Wisconsin communities and businesses innovators in reducing residential and business wastes, preventing pollution, buying recycled products, and developing markets for recycled products. Since 1995, approximately 40 percent of municipal solid waste – 1.6 million tons a year – has been diverted from landfills as a result of recycling and composting at homes and businesses; the national average is only 27 percent.

Dramatic reductions in our wasteful habits have always been born of necessity. During the Depression, when goods were expensive, metal cans, rags and glass were collected and sold. During World War II, when goods were scarce, scrap drives collected everything from tires, fats and cooking pots to bathtubs and peach pits (used to make filters in gas masks).

After the war, our waste disposal habits increased dramatically. The thrifty, resourceful culture began to crave convenient and disposable items. We became a throwaway society; packaging and product consumption increased 63 percent per person between 1958 and 1976. Billions of disposable pens, lighters, diapers, food containers and other packaging had to go somewhere. They ended up in the town dump.

New laws shape disposal methods

By the 1950s, almost every town, village, and city had its own dump – usually a simple ravine, pit in the ground, a wetland, or a perpetually burning pile of garbage at the edge of town. These sites and the private dumps operated by companies on their property became environmental problems 25-40 years later. Wastes improperly buried in the 1960s are still leaking into ground and surface water at about 40 sites statewide. Many of these "Superfund sites" now qualify for federal funding to clean them up properly. "Sanitary" landfills that were simply dug into sandy soils are contaminating groundwater, too.

It's easy to forget that until 1965, no state had formal agencies designated to manage solid wastes. Wisconsin was one of the first to establish such an office and our first rules to regulate dumps took effect in May 1969. New laws in the 1970s defined state standards for safe landfill locations, required annual licensing of all existing disposal sites, and set minimum design criteria for "landfills." "Dumps" – those open-air, unregulated holes in the ground – no longer made the grade. Landfills were carefully designed to reduce leaking, trap blowing debris, compact waste and prevent other public health hazards.

The passage of the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 strengthened state laws regarding waste disposal. RCRA prohibited open dumping of solid waste and required that small dumps either meet environmental requirements for new landfills or close. The law also recognized a new category of "hazardous" waste, whose toxic, flammable, corrosive explosive qualities warranted additional protection. A Bureau of Solid Waste Management was formed in Wisconsin in 1978 to carry out numerous new state and federal laws.

Return to our recycling roots

In 1990, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a state recycling law which included both regulations and financial incentives to reduce wasted resources from businesses and communities. Now, nearly 10 years later only a handful of states have recycling laws as comprehensive as this one. In less than five years time, Wisconsin communities made recycling mandatory for all sectors of the population and completely changed the state's throwaway habits.

The goals of this all-encompassing initiative were to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators each year, and to develop markets to use the recyclable material. We've made great progress toward both goals. Recycling and composting save the equivalent of a landfill of space every 1 1/2 years and avoid $48 million in dumping fees. Further, the recycling industry has increased its capacity since 1990 to use our recyclables – paper, glass bottles, cans, etc. – to make new products. Each year new types of waste become recyclable as business finds new ways to handle and market such wasted resources as construction and demolition material, used oil filters and aerosol cans.

Our recycling law ranks solid waste management practices from most to least desirable: reduce (prevent) waste; reuse; recycle; compost organic material; incinerate with energy recovery; landfill; and incinerate without energy recovery. The Department of Natural Resources provides technical and financial assistance, as well as information and education programs to help communities and businesses comply with the new law.

The recycling law banned a list of items from landfills and licensed incinerators between 1990 and 1995. Local governments have developed effective recycling programs for containers made of glass, steel, aluminum and certain plastics; newspapers magazines, and corrugated paper. Tires, yard waste, major appliances, used motor oil and lead-acid batteries are also banned from landfills. Some recyclables legally may be incinerated if energy is recovered. Disposal of all plastic containers was originally banned, but it proved impractical as markets have only developed for the two most common types of plastics.

Recycling is again a way of life for Wisconsin residents.

© Robert Queen
Going to the recycling center.

Local recycling ordinances carried out these state bans and provided homeowners and businesses with recycling options.

Our resolve to stem wastefulness and better manage those materials we discard has successfully eliminated scrap tire piles, and created grants and loans to manufacturers that use recycled products as raw materials. Since the recycling law passed nine years ago, every state resident has access to a recycling program. More than $7.8 million in demonstration grants have been awarded to develop new markets for recyclables. More than 125 businesses, individuals, and community groups have received awards from the Governor's Waste Reduction and Recycling Award program for their innovative efforts. Our commitment to recycling is helping us reclaim our conservation ethic and leave a legacy which is richer in resources than refuse.

Lissa Radke writes for DNR's Bureau of Waste Management.