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Holiday Celebrations Can Increase Waste -- and Recycling

Ann-Elise Henzl
A front-end loader manages heaps of recyclables that trucks dump at the Materials Recovery Facility in Milwaukee.

At this time of year, many of us exchange gifts or entertain more than usual. The byproduct can be waste, which ends up in landfills.

There are many opportunities to generate waste this season. Items you order online may come entombed in packaging. So can toys. Then, there’s the plethora of materials we use to wrap gifts.

While bows and ribbons are destined for the landfill, people can recycle most wrapping paper and boxes, according to Rick Meyers, Resource Recovery Program manager for the City of Milwaukee. He says people here seem to be getting the message.

"We do have an uptick in waste generation during the holidays. For example, (in) December our garbage collection we're projecting (to be) up about three percent or so over our average month. But recycling, we're actually projecting a 15 percent increase by the end of December, compared to our average month this year," Meyers says.

To search for evidence of seasonal recycling, I headed to the recycling plant in the Menomonee Valley on Monday.

Analiese Smith showed me around. She's recycling assistant for the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works.

We watched, as a recycling truck dumped its load into a huge heap. A front-end loader pushed the mound toward a conveyer to move items through the plant. We easily found cardboard boxes that kids' toys come in, including a big one for a bike. Smith says the materials will become new paper products.

"Everything that gets tipped onto the floor today will be sorted, baled and then stored so that we can get it out of the facility and into those new markets as quickly as possible," Smith says.

The city makes money on the recyclables. Yet Smith says the most important reason to reuse items is environmental. It saves natural resources and limits what ends up in landfills.

Sarah Murray makes a similar argument for recycling electronics. She's the E-Cycle Wisconsin coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.

"There's also a lot of material that can be recovered and reused, you know, metals and plastics, and even some of those hazardous things like lead and mercury. You know, it's better to reuse them then have them just sit in a hole in the ground," Murray says.

Plus, state law bans electronics from landfills. So people who've received new phones or gaming systems for the holidays have to take a couple of steps to get rid of their old ones. You have to find community collection sites or businesses that take electronics.

Joe Wilson is executive director of the educational organization Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful. He says recycling, in general, requires forethought.

"To me, recycling is a planned event," Wilson says.

Wilson adds, it's not something to think about just at the holidays.

"There are presents happening all the time -- for birthdays and weddings and bar mitzvahs and all sorts of times," Wilson says.

For many of us, the next opportunity to get recycling right may come this week, if we're hosting New Year's Eve or bowl game parties.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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