The topic of recycling evokes a variety of reactions. For some people, their practice is a passion. For others, it's sheer confusion.
We want to help you feel confident that what you throw away lands where it belongs. That's why we recently reached out to you, our listeners, asking for your questions about recycling, reusing or garbage.
We received questions from all over southeastern Wisconsin, but when it comes to recycling programs, there's not a one-size-fits-all model in Wisconsin.
"Every community is going to be different depending on who they are contracted with for their material recovery facility," says Tim Last, sanitation and street superintendent with the city of West Allis.
That makes answering the many questions you have about recycling tough to answer, so we tackled the most frequently asked questions. To start, we spoke with Samantha Longshore, Department of Public Works resource recovery manager, to learn about what can and can't be recycled through the city of Milwaukee's curbside pickup program.
Recyclable: No, but there are ways to recycle plastic bags.
Laura Jackson learned the hard way. For years, she carefully filled special plastic bags with her recyclables before putting them into the recycling bin.
"I've been getting them on subscription from Amazon for seven years. And my neighbors have been telling me for months that I'm crazy because if you bag up anything and put it in the bin, it automatically gets thrown away," Jackson says.
It’s true, despite her good intentions, filling or simply tossing plastic bags in your recycling bin is a big no-no.
But plastic film and bags don’t have to end up in a landfill. Some grocery stores collect plastic bags. Roundy’s passes them on to a company that manufactures plastic-based products.
Paper envelopes with plastic windows
"They can go right in and you don’t have to pull off the plastic," Longshore says.
If you have you separate bins for plastic/glass bottles and paper, put paper envelopes with plastic windows in the paper bin. No need to separate!
Cardboard containers with wax coating
Recyclable: Yes, but they need to be clean.
Longshore says cartons and juice boxes can be recycled. You can keep the tops on, but throw the straws in the garbage.
Containers with lids
Recyclable: Yes, but the lid rule is complicated.
Typically, as long as the lid is made out of the same material as the bottle, you should leave it screwed on. Let's say the container is glass, but its lid is plastic — in that case, remove and trash the lid, recycle the bottle only.
If you try to recycle a plastic or metal lid on its own, Longshore says it likely won’t be recycled properly — unless it’s about 4 inches by 4 inches (or bigger) in size.
"When you have cardboard boxes, make sure that you're emptying the cardboard box of the Styrofoam and then flatten that cardboard box to help our drivers pick that up and save space in that truck too," Longshore says.
Plastic tubes (like toothpaste tubes)
Recyclable: No — unless you get all of the product out of the tube.
"As much as you try to squeeze out the last of the toothpaste, there is probably going to be residue left in that," Longshore says.
"Absolutely no batteries in that recycling cart. Rechargeable batteries, that’s a really dangerous item – like you would find in your phone. Those cause a lot of fires at recycling facilities and they’re very small so they're very hard to pull out of the [recycling] stream," Longshore says.
However, Batteries Plus Bulbs accepts every type of battery for a fee. The company recycles what it can and responsibly disposes of what it can’t. You can also drop off burnt-out lightbulbs. See locations here.
She says single-use batteries, like AA and AAA batteries, can be placed safely in garbage bins.
"Unfortunately, the only recyclers we have is close to La Crosse. So, not convenient for Milwaukee. So again for that, we just say please dispose responsibly," Longshore says.
There is a pickup service in the Milwaukee area called JDog that does recycle mattresses — but it will cost you.
Teflon-coated pots and pans
"We do accept them as scrap metal. We used to have them on the poster, but it started encouraging large, dangerous pieces of scrap metal being put into bins," Longshore says.
Both Milwaukee and West Allis accept Teflon-coated pots and pans, but the village of Shorewood doesn't. So, check your local rules (which you can find later in this post.)
Carryout pizza boxes
Recyclable: No — unless they're clean.
"If it has grease or cheese or any kind of food residue, it shouldn’t be recycled," Longshore says.
While Milwaukee doesn't accept greasy pizza boxes, the city of West Allis does.
We also got lots of questions about fabric and clothing, which can't be handled by a municipal recycling pickup program. So, we turned to Bob Woycke to answer some of those questions. He owns a textile recycling business in Milwaukee.
"We get calls every day, people have trimmings from their sewing and that kind of thing — really nothing we can do with that," he says.
But when you donate fabrics and clothing — even stuff that’s been worn a lot — to resale organizations like Goodwill, Woycke says that T-shirt or pair of jeans will find a home, in some form or another.
"We pick up goods from mainly small stores. We load 43,000 pounds into an overseas container. Virtually, all of it goes to Pakistan where the large sorting operations are," Woycke says.
He says approximately 40% will be resold as clothing in Pakistan.
"And then there's about 30%, which will be wiping rags — cut up and trimmed, the buttons and the zippers taken off. There's about 15 different grades of wipers that they produce," Woycke says. "And we buy that back from them."
We've mainly covered what can and can't be recycled in the city of Milwaukee. Here are some links to recycling information for other municipalities in southeastern Wisconsin:
- East Troy
- Port Washington
- South Milwaukee
- West Allis
We've barely tapped into the world of recycling. And education on recycling never ends, according to Tim Last. He's the sanitation and street superintendent for the city of West Allis.
"When issues arise, we're alerted by the crews and we either will make contact by knocking on a door or with a violation notice. They'll call and say, 'Well, I thought this was recyclable,' and we'll educate them and we get very favorable feedback," Last says.
Bottom line: When in doubt, throw it out. That's the safest way to know that what you've recycled can actually be reused.
Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.