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August 14, 2012

According to one of the myths that swirl around recycling, the contents of recycling bins don't really get recycled - they just end up in the landfill with the trash. I wish people who have heard this myth over and over again could see what the state Natural Resources Board, Department of Natural Resources staff and I saw earlier this month.

Our recent Natural Resources Board meeting took place in Germantown and included a tour of Waste Management, Inc.'s giant Material Recovery Facility or "MRF." No one who has seen this facility can have any remaining doubts about the vast quantities of paper and cardboard, plastic, metal and glass that are efficiently sorted and baled for shipment to buyers all over the United States and the world.

That's right: the plastic water bottle you drank from today might be headed to North Carolina tomorrow to be made into carpet; the cartons used to ship canned goods to your local grocery store might show up next week at a loading dock in Milwaukee, ready to be turned into cereal boxes.

Wisconsin has more than 85 MRFs and community recycling centers all over the state, sorting hundreds of thousands of tons of recyclables collected every year by local municipal crews and private hauling contractors. From humble roots just a few decades ago, today recycling has evolved into a major business sector—indeed, a growing business sector.

Companies work hard to line up steady supplies of the materials they need, and to make multi-million-dollar investments in machinery to maximize the efficiency with which recyclables are converted to new goods. Market prices for bales of recovered aluminum, plastic and paper are steady and strong.

More recycled material on the global market means lower raw material cost for U.S. companies who use recycled material, more capital to reinvest in new technology, more supply assurance for manufacturers, lower prices for consumers and - very important these days - more jobs.

Conversely, every aluminum can that gets thrown in the trash instead of being recycled increases the cost of doing business for American manufacturers that use aluminum in their production lines.

Another myth we all hear that just won't go away: "What's good for business is bad for the environment." Wrong! Recycling wins on both counts, and it goes well beyond reducing landfill space, though that's important too. Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy that would have been needed to make new aluminum from ore. One aluminum can saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for three and a half hours. It takes 60 percent less energy to recycle steel than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled newspaper saves 40 percent. Recycled plastics save 70 percent and recycled glass 40 percent. Saving energy also reduces air and water pollution emissions.

Sadly, too many recyclable materials still end up in landfills. It's not because haulers take them there - it's because they never get placed in a recycling bin in the first place. In 2009, for example, Wisconsin residents and businesses threw out more than $50 million worth of metal, plastic, glass and fiber. DNR staff are working with local governments and private businesses to divert more of that material to productive use, and to recover other valuable material like electronics, carpet, paint and wood.

One final myth out there is that recycling is somehow controversial. In fact, our survey results show just the opposite! The vast majority of Wisconsinites support and participate in recycling. When you and I recycle, we don't necessarily have all the benefits in mind at that moment, but I think our intuition tells us we're doing the right thing.

Recycling works for us all. While we can always improve our efforts, Wisconsinites have long valued thrift and efficiency, so it should be no surprise that recycling is part of the fabric of life here - it just makes good sense.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Brad Wolbert - 608-264-6286

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 14, 2012

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