Wisconsin Bets on Voluntary Recycling


The strictest state recycling law in the nation took effect on New Year’s Day, but Wisconsin residents need not worry. There will be no trash police.

It’s a law that authorities hope no one will want to break.

“In Wisconsin, we’re going to have voluntary recycling,” said Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison), a sponsor of the legislation. “If we have to enforce the recycling law the way we enforce the speed limit, we won’t have recycling.”

Black said skeptics who think recycling without enforcement won’t work should look at the compliance rates in about 100 communities where recycling is already in practice.


“They’ve relied on cooperation from the public, which has been very good,” he said.

Wisconsin and Maine now have the toughest trash laws.

Maine last fall extended its decade-old bottle-refund law to all nondairy beverage containers, including juice boxes, liquor bottles and medicine containers.

Wisconsin’s law is even more sweeping. By 1995 all newspapers, plastic and glass containers, aluminum and steel cans, lawn clippings, leaves, used motor oil and household appliances will be banned from landfills.


“That is something we don’t see with other states. Wisconsin is really leading the way on this,” said David Loveland, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition in Washington.

“Wisconsin is on the front lines in terms of enacting along comprehensive lines and in putting together in one succinct package widespread recycling,” Loveland said.

Wisconsin’s law banned used motor oil, household appliances and lead-acid car batteries from landfills as of Jan. 1.

Many communities have arranged special pickups of waste oil and old appliances. The law also requires stores that sell car batteries to accept old batteries for recycling.

Landscaping wastes will be banned from landfills in 1993. Newspapers, glass, plastic, aluminum and steel cans will be banned in 1995.

The law aims to reduce the 6.5 million tons of trash that Wisconsin generates each year and to find uses for the estimated $100 million worth of reusable materials that unnecessarily go to dumps annually.

Although the law sets fines of $50 to $2,000 for illegal dumping, officials say they will rarely invoke penalties. They hope that education and environmental awareness will make them unnecessary.

Cartoon characters named Rhonda Range, Ollie Oil and Battery Bob will promote the first set of recycling rules through advertisements, pamphlets and seminars.


Wisconsin’s recycling effort will work without extensive enforcement if there is a “strong environmental ethic, proper education and convenience,” Loveland said.

Madison has seen a 70% compliance rate since the city started its recycling program a year ago, said Roger Goodwin, operations manager for the street department.

“We think compliance will vary tremendously from community to community,” Goodwin said of the statewide program. “It will depend on how political leaders will react and seek to move against the noncompliers through educational efforts and penalties.”