The Mysteries of Recycling Uncovered

Written by Julee Mitchell
    Thursday, 16 January 2020
The Mysteries of Recycling Uncovered

Are you confused about what items can be recycled? Do you think it doesn’t make a difference anyway so why bother? OR do you think you have the whole recycling thing figured out? If so, you might want to read on!

A group of Urban Ecology staff had the opportunity to tour The Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where all of our recyclables are sorted, baled and sold to other facilities that use them to create new products. The Milwaukee Recycling Facility serves both the City of Milwaukee and over 20 communities in Waukesha County. The city works with an educational partner, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful (KGMB), to provide tours, programs, and recycling information. On the tour, we discovered that in one way or the other, we all were misinformed about how recycling actually works in Milwaukee. (If you live in a community outside of the MRF service area you may want to check your neighborhood’s website as the information shared in this blog may be different.)

staff recovery facilityThe one hour tour began at the Milwaukee Environmental Education and Tour Center with a presentation about why it's important to recycle and what’s acceptable to put in the recycling bins. Then we all put on hard hats and eye protection and were led through the MRF where they receive about 300 tons a day of materials to be sorted and processed in an eight to ten-hour shift. The presentation was really enlightening and our tour guide gave us great information which I’m very excited to share with you!


First, why recycle? And does it really make a difference?

  • Every year 100,000 mammals and 1 million sea birds are killed by ocean debris.
  • Each week 10 billion plastic bags are used and only 1% are recycled.
  • Each hour 4,000,000 plastic bottles are used, but if recycled, they can be made into enough carpet for 29,600 homes.
  • Each ton of recycled paper saves 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, 4000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water.
  • Each year, 20,000,000,000 steel cans are recycled (stacking those cans would go from the earth to the moon 7 times).
  • Using recycled aluminum to produce new cans makes 20 times more with the same amount of energy than it takes to make one from non-recycled aluminum.
  • It takes as few as 60 days for a recycled can to be back on the shelf.
  • According to The annual recycling report, the city of Milwaukee avoided $1.1 million in landfill costs and received over $1.3 million for the sale of materials in 2018.

Does it make a difference? Yes, if you do it correctly.

Did you know recyclables arriving at the facility in trash bags will go straight into the trash? So basically everything you carefully sorted, rinsed and thought was going to be recycled becomes landfill!  It’s very important to put your recycling directly into the bin and keep in mind the following instructions:

  • Only plastic containers with a #1, #2, or #5 symbol.
  • NO wax/foil/plastic-lined paper (like ice cream containers)
  • NO window glass, light bulbs, ceramics, drinking glasses, china, or Pyrex
  • Rinse aluminum, steel, and aerosol cans but don't crush. It’s ok to leave the labels on!

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If you’d like to read a very detailed list about which things can or can’t be recycled check out the Recycling Directory from the city of Milwaukee.

The greatest challenge to the MRF is plastic bags and other contaminants which should not be put in curbside recycling.  These can jam the sorting machinery which causes production to shut down while the jam is cleared. However, plastic shopping bags and other plastic wrappings such as, zip food storage bags, ice bags, product wrap (like toilet paper wrap or paper towel wrap), dry cleaning bags and cereal bags can be recycled but only through collection programs hosted by stores that collect them. Enter your zip code in this Plastic Film Recycling directory to find a drop off near you!  Riverside Urban Ecology Center is a collection site!

Julee Mitchell

Julee Mitchell

Julee works in the UEC Development Department where she strives to keep accurate records of donors and members. Before being hired as a staff member, Julee was an avid volunteer at the UEC helping with community events and programs. She has a graduate degree in Urban Planning from UW-Milwaukee and has a passion for sustainability. She enjoys travel, outdoor sports and leisure, yoga and spending time with her children. Her hobbies include organic gardening and keeping backyard chickens on her urban homestead.


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