In 2017 alone, a staggering 267.8 million tons of waste was generated in the United States. That is nearly 5 pounds of waste per person per day! Unfortunately, only 67 million tons (25%) of that waste was recycled, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. (1)

Fortunately, there are two easy things we can start doing today to improve this situation! First and foremost, reduce how much you consume. This action along will have the greatest impact. Second, recycle what you consumed. Read more to find out how reducing and recycling your waste helps our community and the environment.

What is recycling?

Recycling is the process of making new products out of used materials. For example, instead of sending an empty soda can to the landfill, it can be recycled and turned into a new can. Recycling prevents used materials from filling up our landfills and being sent to incinerators. It also reduces the amount of pollution that end up in our neighborhoods and drinking water. Recycling is also one of the steps in moving our linear economy to a circular one!

Why is recycling important?

Recycling does more than just reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills and incinerators. By recycling, we’re supporting our community and the environment in the following ways:

Energy Consumption

It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (2). At least 40% of energy is saved when producing steel, newspaper, plastic, and glass from recycled materials. By reducing the energy consumed in manufacturing, we’re reducing carbon emissions on a large scale and having a positive impact on our health.

Natural Resources

Earth’s resources are limited and we’re using them up at an alarming rate. Using them recklessly puts ecosystems at risk and creates ecological instability. Local communities may also be harmed by the harvesting and mining of natural resources. By recycling our waste, we reduce our need for and use of water, timber, minerals, and fossil fuels. Recycling also reduces the amount of pollution and waste created as a side effect of harvesting raw materials.

Circular Economy

In our current linear economy, a “make-use-dispose” model, recycling may seem pointless. But in a circular economy, recycling is a very crucial step in the process! Only after the item has been recycled to its full potential is waste made. And only when there aren’t enough recycled materials to make a new item are raw materials used. We need to keep recycling so we can learn how to improve our current systems and make them more sustainable.

How do I recycle in Milwaukee and the surrounding area?

In 2019, I visited the Milwaukee Reclamation Facility (MRF) and witnessed firsthand how impressive and difficult it can be to process recyclable materials. To make sure your waste has the best chance of being recycled, follow these steps:

1. Check Your City’s Recycling Rules

Recycling rules can vary from city to city. They can also change as the demand for certain materials changes. Check your city’s rules to see what kinds of plastics and other materials they can accept. If you are a resident of the City of Milwaukee or County of Waukesha, check the MRF’s rules at

2. Don’t Recycle Dangerous Materials

Some materials are dangerous because they can harm employees, damage machinery, cause fires, and be expensive to dispose of. Do not put these items in your recycling bin:

  • Plastic bags and plastic wrap.
  • Tanglers – hoses, wires, chains, string lights, cords.
  • Hazards – flammables, compressed cylinders, batteries, electronics, and sharps
  • Scrap metal.
  • Oil based paint or paint cans.

3. Don’t Recycle Garbage

We know the importance of recycling, so we put items in our bin with the hope that they can be recycled. Unfortunately, this act known as “wishcycling” isn’t helpful. If you aren’t sure if an item can be recycled, it’s best to throw it out. Alternatively, you can work to reduce your consumption of these items so you aren’t contributing to the landfill. Do not recycle:

  • Paper take out containers.
  • Disposable cups, plates, and utensils.
  • Diapers.
  • Latex paint or paint cans.
  • Tissue paper and wrapping paper that contains glitter.
  • Drinking glasses, mugs, ceramics, china, pyrex, and window glass. These materials contain ingredients that are considered contaminants.

4. Clean Up Your Recyclables

Contaminated materials in your recycling bin can prevent items from being recycled. A quick check over your items can make a big difference. Before placing items in your bin, be sure to remove the following:

  • Food and liquid – empty and rinse containers and remove crumbs from pizza boxes. Do not recycle pizza boxes if it has a grease stain larger than your hand.
  • Glue dots that are typically used to secure credit cards to paper.
  • Packing materials – styrofoam, peanuts, bubble wrap, air pillows.
  • Garbage.

5. Recycle Right

Now that you know what you can put in your recycling bin, it’s important to do it correctly. Take the following steps when adding items to your bin:

  • Keep items loose. Bagged items aren’t able to be sorted properly and are removed from the processing line.
  • Break down and flatten cardboard boxes.
  • Replace the caps on plastic containers and paper cartons, such as milk or juice cartons.
  • Keep paper and cardboard dry by putting them in your recycle bin with the lid closed.
  • Place shredded paper in a sealed paper bag. This is the only item that is ok to put in a bag. Unbagged shredded paper gets everywhere and won’t be recycled.

The Milwaukee Reclamation Facility (MRF) recovers 85% of the material it receives and sells it to local vendors to be recycled. China’s National Sword Policy does not impact Milwaukee. (3) Recyclables collected at the MRF are not being sent to the landfill.

How can I support recycling?

Recycling is an important step in making communities more sustainable. You can do the following to support recycling:

1. Spread the Word

Invite folks to tour the MRF to see how it all works. Share information about recycling with your family, friends, and coworkers. Teach young people how to recycle and why it is important. They are the future!

2. Ask Others to Recycle

Encourage businesses to set up recycling bins for customer use. Advocate for recycling bins in public places, such as parks, sidewalks, and bus stops. Ask businesses to switch to materials that can be recycled or are made of recycled materials.

3. Vote with Your Wallet

Buy products made of recycled materials when you need to purchase a new item. Support restaurants, businesses, and organizations that recycle. Donate to Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful to support recycling education.

Recycle for the future!

We’ve made a lot of progress in recycling over the past few decades, but there is still more we can do. We need to keep moving forward so that we can improve our neighborhoods today, and leave the planet in good shape for many generations to come. In order to achieve long-term success, we have to develop good recycling habits at home and in our community. Share this guide so together we can reduce and recycle to protect the future!

Last updated on August 11, 2023

1 – US Environmental Protection Agency: National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling | US EPA
2 – US Department of Health and Human Services: Benefits of Recycling
3 – City of Milwaukee: Recycling Reminders