Contrary to some reports, it still is a worthwhile thing to do in Madison


DECEMBER 4, 2022

In the 1967 film The Graduate, a family friend gives a disaffected young man played by Dustin Hoffman a single word of advice: “plastics.” If the movie were remade today, he might want to add: “Most of them cannot be recycled.”

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the environmental group Greenpeace, which called the recycling of plastics “a dead-end street” and largely a waste of time. It found that U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, “only 2.4 million tons of which was recycled.”

An investigative report released by National Public Radio on the same day quoted Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation, as saying this about the plastics being collected at the curb: “It’s not going to a recycling facility and being recycled. It’s going to a recycling facility and being landfilled someplace else because [you] can’t do anything with that material.”

And an opinion writer in the Staten Island Advance proclaimed that “for a long time now, there’s been no difference between separating, rinsing out and recycling that plastic juice bottle and simply tossing in with the rest of your household trash. In fact, it’s probably better to put the bottle in the kitchen garbage bag because at least that way it’s contained and will be landfilled.”

Madison recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson begs to differ, saying the recycling numbers tossed about by Greenpeace and others include all plastics that end up in the waste stream, from picture frames to patio chairs, “not just the bottles and jugs that we typically associate with recycling in our homes.”

This year, as of mid-November, the city of Madison has collected a little more than 1,000 tons of plastics, or about 7 percent of the 13,863 tons of material collected from Madison residents, says Johnson. The city pays Pellitteri Waste Systems $32.83 per ton of collected material. (Want to see what happens to it then? Check out the awesome seven-minute YouTube video that comes up when you type “Kipp Street Station MRF” into the platform’s search function.)

According to Johnson, “100 percent of the #1 and #2 plastic containers” — about three-quarters of the plastic being placed in the city’s green carts — is being recycled. Of the rest, about half is #5 plastic, which is being recycled. But the other half —plastics labeled #3, #4, #6 and #7 — “currently does not have a home.” In other words, about one-eighth of the total amount of plastic collected is presently not being recycled.

Johnson says Pellitteri is “working with a couple different facilities in Indiana to accept it, and hopefully that will result in a longer-term home for these materials soon.” In the meantime, “placing it into the recycling cart is still the right thing” in case the market changes, “rather than dooming it to the landfill without hope of reclamation.” Wisconsin, he says, is different from other states in that it has “very specific and strong mandates” about what can and cannot be recycled, reducing waste.

David Pellitteri, vice president of Pellitteri Waste Systems, agrees that Wisconsin’s strong laws and “very robust recycling infrastructure” allow it to do better than other places in terms of how much material can be successfully recycled. He admits that post-consumer plastics present a challenge but says much work is being done “to find mainstream solutions to recycle the type of plastics that currently are not recyclable.” Looking to the future, Pellitteri is optimistic that “Madison will be at the front of the line to get this technology incorporated into our local infrastructure.”

Already, says Jennifer Semrau, waste reduction and diversion coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, the vast majority of recycled plastics sold to end users does get made into new products. “The idea is they’re buying a particular resin or plastic because they have uses for that. It wouldn’t make sense for them to purchase plastic and then landfill it, they would be paying for it twice.”

Semrau says there are many things made with plastic that cannot be recycled, “but the water bottle I have here on my desk, I have confidence does go into the recycling stream, does get to an end market and it’s turned into new products.”

The Greenpeace report urges companies to phase out single use plastics in favor of reusable packaging, among other steps. Johnson, too, says those interested in reducing the environmental harm from plastics should shift to reusables: “Let’s recycle what we can with the system that we have, but as consumers let’s make certain we’re rethinking our relationship with all the plastic stuff we’re inviting into our life.”