Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal Jun 25, 2021

Madison residents have gotten better at recycling, but they're still putting tons of trash in the green bins.
That's according to an April audit conducted by Pellitteri Waste Systems, the contractor in charge of sorting the city’s recycling materials, that found nearly 13% of what was collected was not actually recyclable.

On the flip side, about 13% of what ends up in the Dane County landfill could have been recycled, according to a recent study.

While a significant improvement over the 19% trash content found in 2019 and better than the national average of 17%, the number leaves room for improvement, said Madison recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson.

“We are one of the oldest — if not the oldest — recycling programs in the United States,” Johnson said. “We can be a leader on this.”

And there’s a financial incentive: Under the new contract, the city will pay Pellitteri an extra $1 per ton next year for every percentage point of non-recyclables found in the annual audit.

Based on last year's volumes, that would add up to about $240,000.

“We can’t really control the market rate stuff,” Johnson said. “But we can control trash.”

Johnson said the city could reduce the amount of trash in recycling to 10% if more people followed the guidelines listed on the city’s website and on top of most recycling carts.

That involves some simple rules — like don’t put old pants or rubber hoses in the bin — but consumers also face increasingly confusing messages on items made from recycled materials.

“Some of the labeling isn’t always clear,” Johnson said. “You can’t just whip it in the cart.”

To help with that, the city and Sustain Dane have partnered to offer “master recycler” courses to teach interested residents how they can do a better job of sorting and pass that knowledge on.

About 250 people went through the first course in April, and about 230 are registered for the second cohort in July, said Claire Oleksiak, executive director of Sustain Dane, adding that space is still available.

“I can’t be everywhere,” Johnson said. “But if I get enough experts out there ... they can be the voice of authority.”