Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Wisconsin’s Capital Chooses Curbside Recycling of Plastic Bags

People from Wisconsin have long impressed me as a sensible bunch, so I’m not surprised that Madison, the state’s capital, has completely avoided the bag-ban/tax craze. Instead, the city simply added plastic bags to what it was collecting in its curbside recycling program, and enjoyed an immediate cut of a $17,800 expense from the annual municipal budget.

Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin made plastic bags part of its normal curbside recycling program.

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Madison already had a successful recycling program, recycling or composting over 57% of the city’s annual waste stream. But it wants to improve that. The 49,000 tons of waste going to the Dane County landfill each year is costing city taxpayers $1.38 million in landfill fees and another $544,000 in hauling costs.

Madison’s Streets Division currently is encouraging the city’s 67,000 households to go on a trash diet so they lose a pound a week – of waste. That would reduce waste-to-landfill volume by 5805 tons, or 12%.

Accepting plastic bags in the current curbside collection bins allowed the city to remove four plastic bag drop-off containers locate around town that were costing $17,800 per year to service. Instead of going to those locations, citizens now merely put their bags and other plastic film in a plastic bag, tie it, and drop it in their green recycling bins. The tied bag can be easily sorted out at the processing center.

Besides shopping bags, Madison’s program accepts newspaper, produce, bread, and food storage bags, shrink wrap, and heavier film such as that used to wrap appliances and mattresses, and any other film marked #2 HDPE or #4 LDPE,. Most area supermarkets will keep their plastic bag drop-offs since they are

not part of the city’s program.

What impresses me most is how simply the City of Madison went about doing this: no drawn-out political hearings and arguments, no bans, taxes, or fees, and no new bureaucracy and administrative expenses. By bringing plastic bags and films into the existing recycling program, Madison can sell what it collects to a recycling company, thereby avoiding a potential litter problem while opening a new revenue stream. In theory, any city with a recycling program could do this, too.

Plastic bags and films are recyclable, no matter what you may read or hear, and recycling companies are clamoring for more. Keeping plastic bags and films in a closed loop system (use-recycle-reuse-recycle, etc.) keeps them out of the environment and makes good economic sense. In Madison, Wisconsin they figured that out.

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