Teenage girl sorting plastic bottles

Recycling -- It's Working

WI recycle logo

Is it your turn to take out the trash? Chances are your trash can is a lot lighter now that your family recycles. Twenty years ago, people in Wisconsin threw out everything from toothpaste tubes to old TV sets, food scraps to bags, computer games to oil filters. What a waste! Today we're recycling and composting 40 percent of all that "junk" we used to throw away, saving valuable landfill space and conserving natural resources.

The Recycling Law, passed in 1990, got every community in Wisconsin started on recycling, and families, just like yours, joined in. Now, just about everyone recycles - over 90 percent of the households in the state. Most people recycle because it's good for the environment, it’s the right thing to do and they strongly support the Recycling Law.

Read on to find out more about recycling and how you can help reduce waste.

Wisconsin's recycling law requires certain materials be recycled and saved from the landfills. These items are collected by people who put them at the curb for collection or take them to recycling bins located around town. The materials are then turned into new products for us to use. Believe it or not, plastic bottles are being made into park benches, T-shirts and cozy fleece jackets. These items are too valuable to waste but unfortunately when people throw them away they add to the mountains of waste that already fill up landfills.

Luckily, over 90 percent of households in Wisconsin recycle, which help divert 1.6 million tons of materials from landfills each year. If you're like the average person in Wisconsin, you're probably recycling or composting almost 2 pounds of stuff every day!

Wisconsin’s recycling requirements apply to everyone in the state, and at all locations. This includes schools, public places, businesses, special events, homes and apartments.

Don't throw away that pop can, car battery, or magazine. They should all be recycled as a part of Wisconsin’s required items listed below that are not allowed in our landfills. Each of these items can be made into new products for us to use instead of taking up space in a pile of junk somewhere.


  • office paper*
  • newspaper
  • magazines
  • corrugated cardboard


  • aluminum cans
  • steel (tin) cans
  • glass bottles and jars
  • plastic containers labeled #1 and #2 on the bottom


  • televisions
  • computers (including desktop, laptop, netbook and tablet computers)
  • desktop printers (including those that scan, fax, or copy)
  • computer monitors
  • other computer accessories including keyboards, mice, speakers, external hard drives and flash drives
  • DVD players, DVRs, VCRs and other video players
  • fax machines
  • cell phones

Other Materials

  • major appliances
  • waste tires
  • car batteries (lead-acid types)
  • yard wastes (try composting)
  • used motor oil
  • used oil filters
  • used oil absorbents

*This means "high grade printing and writing papers from offices."

Some communities go above and beyond what is required by law. Check with your local government or recycling center to find out what additional materials are accepted for recycling.


Feel good about recycling? Well, you should, but you're still throwing a lot of stuff away. If you added up all the waste from your house, from the store where you shopped and from the restaurant where you ate, it would amount to 4.7 pounds per person of solid waste thrown into the trash every day. Multiply that by 365 days per year, then by 5.4 million Wisconsin citizens, and your results would show that Wisconsin creates more than 4.6 million tons of trash each year.

How much is that? That much trash is enough to pile a typical city street 3 feet deep, curb to curb, for 500 miles—more than the distance from Superior to Chicago! Or, if compressed, the way it is in landfills, that much waste would bury a 200-acre farm under 28 feet of trash each year.

So, what are we still throwing away? Toothpaste tubes, plastic bags, toothbrushes, old shoes, broken toys, food scraps, packaging that's not recyclable, carpeting and drapes, furniture... Whew! The list is endless.

The best thing you can do is to try and not create any trash. Of course, that's impossible. No matter how hard we try, we'll always have something to throw away. But, there are many ways to make less trash. Are you up for the challenge? This list gives you other options and provides 7 steps you can take.

About 60 percent of Wisconsin’s trash or municipal solid waste ends up in the state’s 41 or so licensed municipal landfills. A landfill is a place where trash is dumped, compacted and covered with dirt. Covering the trash controls blowing paper, odors, insects and rodents and keeps water out of the landfill. All of the licensed landfills in Wisconsin are sanitary landfills—designed, built and operated according to state-of-the-art standards to prevent pollution problems. These engineered or "approved" landfills are built only after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approves the site and the operating plan. These "approved" landfills are unlikely to contaminate groundwater and pose potential health hazards.

Approximately 40 percent of the rest of our trash gets recycled, composted or combusted with energy recovered. It’s taken from your house or a drop-off site to one of the 150 or so material recovery facilities throughout the state. Here cardboard, newspaper, magazines, office paper, bottles and cans are sorted and sold to manufacturers who make new products out of them. Tires, vehicle batteries, motor oil and major appliances are also recycled, and about half the yard waste is managed “at home” by people who leave grass clippings on their lawn and compost leaves and herbaceous plants.

Unfortunately, some waste is still dumped along roadsides, in public parks, or in other non-approved locations. Except for household wastes discarded on the homeowner’s property, it is illegal to discard or incinerate garbage, trash, industrial waste, farm chemicals and other waste in places that aren’t approved by the state.

Over the last three decades, people have become more aware of environmental problems; stricter federal regulations regarding the siting, construction, daily operation, closure and post-closure monitor of landfills have been developed; and the amount of municipal solid waste generated in the United States has increased at a rate faster than our population growth.

People believe that we are running out of space for landfills, when actually there are many sites to locate modern, sanitary landfills that will meet state and federal requirements. These new sanitary landfills are designed to be clean and to contain and collect leachate and methane gas that result from the decomposition of organic materials or the gradual breakdown of inorganic materials. But, there's a problem. Nobody wants a landfill in their neighborhood (called the Nimby phenomenon) and everyone hates to pay more for trash disposal. So, both the cost and people's feelings about landfills can prevent new ones from being built.

The amount of natural resources we throw away is another part of the solid waste problem that is not so apparent. Wisconsin’s trash contains enough energy to heat over 350,000 homes a year, and even though we’re recycling tons of metals, glass, plastic and paper, we are still throwing away a lot of valuable natural resources. Not only do we need to recycle more, we need to move beyond recycling and do more to reduce waste before it is even produced.

You can start by looking at what is thrown away at home and in your community. Each person's "drop in the bucket" of trash adds up to create the trash problem. If each drop becomes smaller, the problem itself becomes smaller too. And, by making less trash you help your community and the environment. Look for the links in this section, they'll take you to an activity you can do at home and school to help reduce the trash problem.

Everyone produces some waste, but you don't have to be a "super consumer." Think about the things you buy, activities you do, and services you buy. In what ways do they contribute to the solid waste problem? How could you purchase and dispose of items in ways that generate less trash? What can you do to voice your opinion about solid waste issues in your community? Take a look at a model recycling community. (leaving EEK!) How does yours measure up?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • take part in America Recycles Day on November 15.
  • compost food wastes, leaves, and grass clippings. Buy or build a back yard composter or compost with worms.
  • buy items in returnable, reusable, or recyclable containers and then return, reuse, or recycle them!
  • recycle all of the items on the list of materials banned from landfills and buy items or packages made with recycled content.
  • reuse items to make gifts like bird feeders, crafts, or science projects.
  • take a cool lunch box to school with reusable containers inside instead of a paper bag and throw-away wrappers.
  • say "No bag please" when you buy a small item at a store that you can easily carry without a bag. That's what pockets are for!
  • donate used items and outgrown items to charities. Get a receipt that your parents can use as a tax deduction and save money!
  • write on both sides of a paper.
  • borrow books or magazines from your library instead of buying your own.
  • wrap gifts in old newspapers. Use the sports pages for athletes, comics for kids, etc.
  • you can even recycle a fish through catch-and-release fishing!

Are you short of cash, but got lots of trash? Here are a few ways you can turn trash into gifts you can give your friends, family, your teacher, and even yourself.

Tags: Recycling