In September 1968, recycling started in Madison. This means we were the first community in the United States to offer curbside recycling services.
Fifty years later, we're still recycling and still looking for ways to turn the material we no longer want into valuable resources.
Early days: 1968
The City of Madison began recycling newspapers in September 1968. Residents had to leave bundled newspapers at the curb for pickup on their refuse collection day.
(Bundled newspapers circa 1970)
The pilot program began after the US Forest Products Lab and the American Paper Institute approached the city in an effort to turn unwanted newspapers into a resource to make new paper.
(Paper recycling advertisement)
The program was a success. Two years later, the pilot program grew into a citywide program and eventually became mandatory on August 1, 1986.
(Transferring paper from collection truck to haul vehicle - 1981)
appliances & METAL
Paper was not the only material recycled. In the early 1970s, refuse was shredded before it was hauled to a landfill. Starting in 1972, any metal items were pulled from the refuse prior to shredding. The metal was then hauled to local metal recyclers.
(Hammermill at 121 E. Olin Ave. Photo taken circa 1970. This process no longer occurs.)
Four years later in 1976, a curbside appliance collection and recycling program began. Curbside collection and recycling of appliances continues today.
(Appliances being dumped for recycling circa 1982)
Waste to energy - refuse derived fuel
In 1979, the City began a waste-to-energy program. The refuse collected by the City was separated at the processing facility at 121 E. Olin Ave. Recyclables were removed, which was just metal and some newspaper at the time. The remainder material was milled. The milled product was sent to Madison Gas & Electric and Oscar Mayer to burn for fuel.
(Draftsperson's rendering of 121 E. Olin Ave as a recovery plant circa 1985. Drawing completed by Ted Jagelski, the city's first recycling coordinator)
In 1994, due to changing markets and concerns about pollution, the waste-to-energy process ended, and the recovery machinery was removed. The processing facility was converted a transfer station, which is still used today.
At the transfer station, Madison dumps the garbage collected by the Streets Division. The garbage is then packed onto a semi-truck to be hauled to the landfill without shredding or sorting.
yard waste collection
Yard waste is not something typically considered to be part of recycling, but it is. Yard waste (like leaves, grass clippings, etc.) is a valuable resource when recycled into compost. There's no reason to plug our landfills with this valuable resource that can return needed nutrients to our soil. And we have a lot of yard waste in Madison.
Beginning in 1980, a voluntary yard waste collection program began with the Streets Division delivering leaves to area farmers for composting.
By 1989, the city began working to keep yard waste from entering the landfill. And In the early 1990s, yard waste was banned from landfills across Wisconsin. The desire to save usable material from being wasted, and the law changes, lead Madison to the yard waste collection (and recycling) program we have today.
(Leaf collection process circa 1985. Collection method of pushers and collection trucks with pans has not changed, but the regular pushing equipment is closer in size to a riding lawnmower than the tractor that is shown in this picture.)
At the same time that metal was pulled from the refuse in the early 1970s, workers at the mill removed brush from the garbage to be made into wood chips and mulch.
In 1976, regular curbside collection of brush began - well before the yard waste landfill ban of the early 1990s. The curbside brush collection program continues today, and remains a popular and heavily used service.
(Feeding brush into a wood chipper in the 1990s. Not much has changed in the collection process over the years, though our crews wear appropriate safety shirts and vests today.)
After nearly 20 years of only being able to recycle newspaper, a recycling program for glass began in 1987. However, glass recycling was not available for curbside collection like newspapers. Residents had to deliver their bottles and jars to a drop-off site.
The Streets Division had 13 drop-off bins like the one shown below stationed around Madison to make recycling as convenient as possible.
(Former glass recycling drop-off site in Madison)
In 1989, which was just two years after the glass drop-off program started, there was opportunity to recycle more items. The City then expanded the items collected at these drop-offf sites to include aluminum, steel, and plastic containers.
curbside collection begins
The same year that drop-off recycling opportunities expanded to aluminum, steel, and plastic containers Madison began a pilot for curbside collection.
The pilot involved the City helping three community groups perform curbside recycling while the Streets Division performed its own pilot in other areas of the city.
At the time, recycling had to be placed in clear plastic bags with newspapers still bundled outside of the bags. The pilot was a smashing success.
(Pilot curbside collection vehicle. Workers loaded a trailer with bags of recycling.)
In 1991, mandatory curbside recycling began. The popularity of the curbside recycling program meant very few people used the recycling drop-off stations, so the 13 drop-off sites were reduced to the two drop-off sites we know and use today at 1501 W. Badger Rd and 4602 Sycamore Ave.
(Recycling delivered to recycling processing center in the 1990s)
The recycling collected by the Streets Division was hauled to a facility now owned by Waste Management called the Madison Recycling Center.
(Exterior of Madison Recycling Center, circa 1989)
The Madison Recycling Center is a material recovery facility, or MRF, where the recyclables were removed from their bags and the items were separated into glass, plastic, metal, and paper bunkers. The process is very similar to the work performed today. Since 2012, Madison has worked with Pellitteri Waste Systems to sort the recyclables the City collects.
(Worker sorting recycling on conveyor belt at the Waste Management Madison Recycling Center in 1991. Even today, a lot of recycling is sorted by hand.)
Placing bags of household recycling at the curb made things somewhat convenient for residents. But the bags created many challenges.
Workers needed to pick up all these items by hand, which led to injuries. Plus, recycling the plastic bags themselves proved difficult. The bags contained many beverage containers that were not fully empty or clean, which lead to a sticky residue that hurt the plastic recycling process. This led Madison to search for another alternative to provide curbside recycling collection. But, it must be said, keeping recyclables clean and dry remains an important responsibility today.
(Large pile of recycling in bags and bundled cardboard boxes)
Electronics recycling is very important, and it will only continue to grow in importance as more and more electronics become part of our lives.
Electronics can contain hazardous material like lead or mercury, and can also contain sensitive personal information on our computers and cell phones.
Madison began a computer recycling program in 1998 with computer round up events.
(Still from 1998 computer round-up commercial featuring former recycling coordinator George Dreckmann)
In 2008, the opportunity to recycle electronics with the City expanded. The occasional computer recycling events were replaced by year round drop-off sites where residents can recycle a great many of electronic items from small household batteries to bulky tube TVs.
(Electronics recycling container at Badger Rd in 2018)
And once again, Madison was ahead of the curve. A statewide landfill ban that requires recycling of certain electronics was not instituted until 2010.
automated collection: the big change for curbside
When we think of recycling, it's understandable to focus on the stuff we can prevent from being sent to the landfill. But innovations are not restricted to just the material.
How to provide recycling services to everyone in a manner that is quick, easy, safe for workers, and cost efficient is a huge concern. In 2005, Madison took a big leap forward in addressing these problems.
(Recycling collection in the 2000s before automated trucks)
Starting in 2005, Madison began what's called "automated collection" of recycling. This is basically the same recycling collection method you see today. A collection vehicle with one operator pulls up to a stop, uses a robot arm to extend from the vehicle to grab a collection cart. The mechanical arm lifts the cart and dumps the contents into the top of the truck.
(First model of automated recycling collection trucks in 2005.)
Automated recycling collection makes the service much safer and faster for the work force. They no longer needed to lift heavy bags of mixed recycling and cumbersome bundles of newspapers.
Automated collection makes recycling simpler for residents, too. More material can fit into a collection cart than could ever fit into a bag. Plus, having a cart means no more purchasing an extra special bag for recycling. Items can (and should) be dumped loose into the recycling cart for easy collection and sorting.
(Automated collection trucks in 2018)
When looking to add new recycling material, the waste stream must be evaluated. The most important consideration is toxicity. If an item is toxic, finding those items a safe place for disposal is critical.
Next, you consider the volume of the waste stream. If there is a lot of a particular item, it would be good to try to remove that bulk from the landfill and get it recycled.
And third you want to be sure you have the opportunity and markets available to accept and process the item to keep it from the landfill (at an acceptable cost, of course).
In 2013, the City started mattress recycling. Mattresses are not toxic, but Madison disposes of thousands of mattresses each year, meaning the volume was definitely there. Mattresses use a lot of landfill space because they're big and they do not compact like other garbage. They are full of springs and foam after all - springing back up after being pressed down is exactly what they're supposed to do. And there was opportunity to have the items that make up mattresses recycled into new stuff (for example, mattress foam can be recycled into carpet padding).
(Mattress recycling drop-off area at Badger Rd in 2018)
In 2021, thanks to the budget problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mattress recycling program ended. While the volume and opportunity still exist, the cost in dollars is high, and the pandemic forced many hard choices, including ending this program. It is still important to recycle them, and we will try to find a way forward to get back to recycling these items once again.
The next big thing for recycling in Madison will be food scraps. Food scraps and food-stained compostable paper make up about 25% of what we put into the landfill. And it can be recycled by turning it into compost. With the right technology, our unwanted food can be used to generate electricity or produce natural gas - and the solid byproduct would still be suitable for composting.
A pilot program for food scraps started in 2011. While it ended for a time in 2018, it restarted as a drop-off only program in 2020. The program is still small, and the Streets Division remains committed to recycling this material not only to achieve goals laid out in Madison's comprehensive plan, but to continue the Streets Division's long history of diverting usable material from the landfill.
Beyond food scraps, recycling will go through many changes. As the stuff in our lives changes, the ways and opportunities we have to process and reclaim resources from our consumer products will change. This is why knowing and following the recycling rules is so important.
Recycling markets will change as well. Recyclable material is sold around the world and are subject to the same shifts, rises, and falls as other global commodities like oil.
There will be one constant in all this change: Madison will recycle. We will always work to find ways to take the items we no longer want or need and find ways to prevent those resources from being wasted.