It's not easy being green: Marathon Co. recycling audits show improvement in habits and stark need in education

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- Recycling audits in Marathon County indicate at least three-quarters of people do not know how to properly recycle. Audits are not required by law, but they have become increasingly common in Marathon County.

People dig through recycling in Weston for an annual recycling audit.

The short results are that people do not know what they are doing when it comes to recycling, but as Meleesa Johnson, the director of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department said, "Recycling is complicated."

In 1990, Wisconsin became one of the first states to ban certain items from landfills, most of it being recyclable materials. That made it the municipalities’ responsibility to educate their residents about proper recycling and disposal.

Johnson did the first recycling audit in the county in 2012 in Mosinee after borrowing the tactic from a colleague in Fitchburg.

“Their recycler said, ‘we’ve got some problems,’ and they came to me and said, ‘How do we fix this?’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s figure out what the problem is first,’” she said.

The project was a collaboration between Mosinee’s waste hauler, IROW, the county, and the Mosinee High School Green Committee. The hauler dumped 6,020 pounds of trash just collected from homes in Mosinee and the team went through the piles.

They were able to divert about 21% of what was thrown away from going to the landfill and instead send it to the recycling center. Another 883 pounds or about 15% were items banned from landfill disposal, and another 380 pounds were things that needed to be taken to other facilities to be recycled or reused. Included in that was 51 pounds of clothing that were washed and then taken to Goodwill.

The audit broke down the fiscal implications of people not recycling and disposing of waste correctly. In the report, it expounded on the percentage of recycling or reusable material found in the trash, stating if those items were “diverted from disposal, the savings would be over $8,000,” annually for the City of Mosinee.

There are also implications when garbage or things that cannot be recycled go to the recycling center. If there is too much waste, the center may charge a tipping fee to municipalities. They also use the money collected from the sale of these recyclable materials to keep waste collection affordable. In the 2012 audit, “the average market value of just the recyclables diverted from disposal” was $200 or $1,600 for an estimated annual total.

In 2014 Valerie Parker, the planning technician for the Village of Weston, reached out to Johnson to begin conducting annual audits. That is when the village switched to a single-stream recycling program, where residents can put all of their recyclables in one bin. Parker said the recycling center noticed a lot of contamination in what it was receiving.

"People were using plastic bags to bag up their recyclables, people were putting styrofoam containers, there were some electronics and these are all things that are considered recyclable, but are not recyclable in your household recycling cart," she said.

NewsChannel 7 was not able to obtain data from all of the Weston audits in time for this story, but did receive data from 2017 and 2019. Between those two years, the number of recycling bins with contaminates decreased by 14% and there was a 62% drop in the number of garbage bins containing things that need to be either recycled, composted, or taken to another facility.

There is still room for improvement, however. Last year 71% of recycling bins had something that should not be in there and 79% of garbage bins had recyclable material. There were some containers that received perfect scores, but in 2019 that was only 29% of recycling bins and 21% of garbage bins.

“By doing these audits, it allowed us to revamp our recycling educational material to let people know what we’ve been finding and how to get rid of those other things that are recyclable but do not belong in the carts,” Parker said.

One way they educate residents is by leaving a note on bins they audit. Perfect bins receive a gold star, bins with only a few contaminates receive a silver star, those that have a lot of contamination get an “Oops!” letter listing the problems, and those will really contaminated bins get the “Oops!” letter and a copy of the village’s recycling guidelines.

Now, Wausau is looking at how well its residents are doing. Michelle Goetsch, the CEO, and co-founder of the app ERbin approached the city to do an audit.

“Recovered materials in Weston are taken to the Portage County Material Recovery Facility,” she said. “They have different equipment, they have different commodity buyers, so they’re guidelines are different. The City of Wausau’s materials are taken by Harders up to Eagle Waste in Eagle River. They have different processing equipment and different commodity buyers, and so different guidelines. So… what’s acceptable matters based on where you live.”

Goetsch will be going over the results of the audit Wednesday but told NewsChannel 7 84% of recycling bins in the audit had some type of contamination and 65% of garbage bins had something that should have been recycled.

"The most uplifting thing is that people are recycling,” she said. “They are putting a lot of materials in their recycling bins, which means they care."

Johnson said when in doubt, go back to the basics of recycling. That means things like glass, most plastic drink jugs and bottles and plastics labeled number 1 and 2 (though Johnson said even that is not always a good guide), aluminum cans, steel cans, tin cans, paper, and cardboard are almost always recyclable.

Plastics, however, is where it gets complicated. Plastics 3-7 are largely not recyclable in the United States.

"Where the problem is is we haven't built a regional or national infrastructure for some of these materials,” Johnson said. “We became very dependent on foreign markets."

Countries like China used to take American post-consumer products, specifically plastics 3-7. In 2017 China largely stopped taking those products.

"We said, 'Well we can't-- we don't have the infrastructure here to turn number 6 plastic into something else, so let's just ship it to China or Vietnam or Malaysia and hope that they can.’ And, in fact, they couldn't and so in many ways, they probably burned some of it and some of it is floating in the ocean and so we're just as responsible," Johnson said.

She explained that is why the little recycling symbol companies put on products are deceiving consumers.

"They go, 'It's recyclable! I'm so happy!' put it in the recycling bin,” Johnson said. “That number and those little chasing arrows, that is an industry thing that they created. This isn't regulated; there's no standardization."

With few or no facilities able to recycle these materials, it means they end up in landfills.

“Consumers have the power, billions, and billions, and billions of dollars of power and I don’t think they realize that strength,” she exclaimed.

Johnson encourages consumers to reach out to companies to be the solution because it is already driven change.

“They said we want you to produce less waste. Walmart has adopted a sustainability model. They have sent much of their wasted food to composting and anaerobic digestion. That was driven by consumers,” Johnson said. “And consumers are saying, ‘we want your crops grown more sustainably,’ which has driven Frito-Lay to say to the potato growers, ‘can you produce something with less water and with less [sic] chemicals?’ It’s driven by consumers, so they are the ones that can start asking for that. If they have a choice between a package that we know is very recyclable and something which is a little weird because it has some plastic, maybe a little bit of metal, and then some paper, and they’re the same, similar product, you’re going to go for the one that you know can be something else, that paper container.”

While Johnson said she is all for recycling, people need to remember the first ‘R,’ reduce.

"Everyone thinks that if they've recycled, they've saved the earth; they have not. It is just a delayed disposal tactic that allows for it to stay in a useful cycle for a longer period of time."

To find out how to best recycle in your community, reach out to your municipality or check out their website. For residents in Weston and for UW-Stevens Point students, you can also check the ERbin app to scan items and know where to take them or which bin to put the item in.

The Marathon County Solid Waste Department in Ringle also has numerous bins to take items that are recyclable, but not recyclable in your municipal bin. You can also find tips from the Central Wisconsin Recycling Collective, with specific information for people living in Marathon and Portage counties.

You can also find information by reaching out to recycling centers, like Eagle Waste & Recycling, which can give you what its capabilities are and if your waste comes to their facility.

Salvage yards like Yaeger Auto Salvage, resale shops like Goodwill, recycling organizations like Good News Project, and some stores and manufacturers like Batteries Plus Bulbs also will take items to be recycled, but call ahead to check if they can take the items you have and how best to deliver them.

Styrofoam is another material that is recyclable, but few places can recycle it. Styrene Products in Weston will take ETS, white, clean, dry, free of all tape and other material between during regular business hours of 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.