Madison marks half-century anniversary as nation’s first municipal recycling program
Brian Matthews eases his big blue truck up against the curb. With a joystick next to the steering wheel, he guides a mechanical arm out to the side and wraps its “fingers” around a green cart.
A video monitor in the cab shows a mix of paper, bottles and boxes drop into the hopper behind him before he lowers the can back to the pavement and lurches to the next driveway.
“It’s kind of like playing a video game,” Matthews says.
Matthews, who drives one of the five blue recycling trucks that prowl Madison’s streets each day, works in a high-tech environment, but his job has been around longer than he has.
It’s been half a century since the city of Madison launched its curbside recycling program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Much has changed since the early days, when residents were encouraged to bundle their newspapers with twine. But the city continues looking for ways to save landfill space and find new ways to reuse its waste material.
Despite Madison’s reputation as an environmentally conscious city, the recycling program had roots in a different sort of green.
It was nearly two years before the first Earth Day — a national demonstration organized by Wisconsin’s then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson — when the Madison streets division asked residents to begin bundling their newspapers with twine and setting them on the curb separate from their garbage.
The stated goal was saving space in the landfill, though the impetus came from industry, said John Reindl, former Dane County recycling manager.
“The American Paper Institute realized this fiber would be a good resource,” Reindl said.
Madison’s public works director, Edwin Durzynski, saw the value of the program and expanded it citywide in 1970.
“He just grabbed this idea and ran with it,” Reindl said.
Within two years the city estimated it was recycling about half of all newspapers delivered and began turning a profit in 1971. In some areas of the city, thieves were even snatching bundles left overnight on the curb.
The program expanded steadily over the next two decades, with the city adding yard waste, glass, metal and plastic containers to the list of accepted materials and eventually implementing mandatory curbside recycling in 1991.
Some of the changes were in response to policies at the Dane County landfill, but the city was consistently ahead of state regulations.
“The state really patterned their idea of landfill bans after what we did in Dane County,” said George Dreckmann, who served as the city recycling coordinator from 1988 to 2016.
Reindl said the city got two things right: developing markets for the material, and making recycling mandatory.
Because collection is so expensive and end users dependent on a steady stream of product, citywide participation is necessary to make a program cost-effective.
And without markets, there’s no recycling.
Dreckmann, who became known throughout the region for his television commercials promoting the recycling program, jokes that he came to the job as a “tree hugger” but soon discovered he was an international commodities broker.
“We had to have somebody to take it,” he said. “You’ve got to have that market.”
According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Madison still recycles more material per capita than any other comparably sized city in Wisconsin — about 144 pounds per person in 2016 — but the rate has been declining in recent years, and a handful of county programs now do more.
One explanation for the declining rate has to do with development patterns. The data reported to the DNR represent only material collected by the municipality, and Madison recycling trucks only service single-family homes and buildings with up to eight units.
Between 2010 and 2017, the city gained more than 9,100 units in developments with eight or more units, compared to just over 1,900 smaller buildings and homes, according to the city planning department. And the Census Bureau estimates the city’s population in large multi-family developments grew at nearly 10 times the rate of smaller buildings.
Once Matthews has filled his blue truck — which usually happens by about 10 a.m. — he delivers the haul of paper, bottles, cans and cardboard boxes to Pellitteri Waste Services, where a combination of workers and machines separate and bundle the materials for reuse.
The city pays Pellitteri $46 a ton, which is $4 less than it would cost to dump it at the landfill. And as part of the contract, the city gets a share of the revenue, which can be more than $1 million a year, more than enough to offset the cost most months.
Last year the city netted more than $315,000 from its recyclables, but revenues took a nosedive this year as China enacted tough new restrictions on imports of materials considered trash. That has created such a glut of scrap paper in the United States that some recyclers are paying mills to take their products.
The Chinese crackdown has also led the city to stop collecting rigid plastic — like kids’ toys, coolers and 5-gallon buckets.
“It turned into a bit of a bummer for us,” said city recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson. “That material doesn’t have a home anymore.”
Earlier this year the city ended its food scrap recycling program, citing problems with contamination.
But even when markets are down, there’s value in keeping material out of the landfill.
The Dane County landfill has about 15 to 18 years of permitted space remaining, and it costs roughly $1 million per acre to construct cells to hold garbage.
“After that it’s taking over farmland to bury stuff we don’t want anymore,” Johnson said. “How is that the best outcome?”
Reindl said recycling programs should pay more attention to the costs and benefits of different materials.
Melting down a soda can uses only about 5 percent of the energy required to mine and process virgin bauxite into new aluminum.
But the same equation doesn’t apply to other materials, such as glass, which might require more energy to collect and process.
“Maybe it doesn’t really make sense to do it…. If we had unlimited money and resources we could do it all,” he said. “But we never will.”
Dreckmann, who serves on the board of the National Recycling Coalition, said zero waste may not be a realistic goal, but he would like to see the city keep 80 percent of its waste out of the landfill. The city’s diversion rate last year was just under 60 percent.
That could come with new technologies that make it easier to capture methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and nutrients from food waste.
But Dreckmann cautions that Madison might benefit from letting other communities break that ground.
“We’ve always been out there,” he said. “We don’t really want to be first anymore, but there’s nothing wrong with being 10th. You can learn from other people’s mistakes.”