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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


City of Madison sees increase in recycling, as well as contaminated recycling

Unrecyclable materials mixing with recyclable materials causes contaminated recycling to be sent to waste
Lena Simon

With an increase in spent time at home, the City of Madison is witnessing a large increase in recycling. 

The report said residential recycling has made up for the decrease in recycling from commercial sources, continuing a steady and increasing volume of material, especially in cardboard. 

Overall, recycling volume from 2020 is greater than the recycling volume from 2019, according to Madison Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson. This increase could be attributed to a multitude of factors, including online shopping. 


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With more recycling comes more responsibility, Johnson said.

“Be a conscious consumer,” Johnson said. “If you care about this recycled material, this system works because there is a market on the backend. Our responsibility does not stop when things stop working, it stops when they are in the right place.”

The contamination rate in recycling is currently at 18.9%, a high for the historic curbside recycling, according to Johnson.

When people mistake clothes, unrecyclable plastic and other unrecyclable materials for recyclables, these materials contaminate the real recyclables, and can disrupt the recycling process, Johnson said.

Recently, misplaced trash caused a recycle truck to catch fire, when lithium batteries sparked and ignited materials in the truck, Johnson said. 

Rain, snow and confusing materials also play a role in contaminating recyclables. But, Johnson said, “wish recycling” is the largest contributor.

“Wish recycling is putting materials into your cart because you wish it could be recycled,” Johnson said. 

Clothes and difficult plastics are the largest offenders in wish recycling, Johnson said. People tend to assume these things can be recycled, but in fact, recycling workers sort them out and throw them into the trash, or they contaminate other recyclable materials. 

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Curious consumers can request information from local recycling companies, Johnson said.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Johnson said. 

The public must work together to prevent an equally large increase in contaminated recycling as general recycling increases, Johnson said.

Life Sciences Communication associate professor Todd Newman is an expert in the intersection between science and society, including public opinion and engagement.

The public’s view toward recycling can affect a community’s recycling habits, Newman said. 

Attitudes toward environmental issues and environmental sensitivity has increased over time, Newman said.

“Social norms are a really powerful influence regardless of our attitudes,” Newman said.

Living in a community that is recycling-responsible can influence others in the community to follow. Both the city and local communities can work to communicate recycling do’s and don’ts, Newman said. 

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Another way to encourage the citizens in Madison to recycle responsibly is the use of strong imagery to show what the future can look like, Newman said. Strong imagery can motivate people to act. 

“Fear motivates when you can provide information on how to make a difference,” Newman said.

People have a tendency to deny future events that could happen, according to Newman. The public doesn’t want to see images of landfills overflowing, parks filled with trash or polluted lakes. 

But Newman said these images could encourage the public to recycle more frequently and avoid contamination.

Strong imagery used clearly and consistently can motivate the public to join the effort in responsible recycling, Newman said. Even temporary residents, including students on the University of Wisconsin campus, can be encouraged to keep Madison clean.

“What kind of legacy do you want to leave for this community that you call home, even temporarily?” Newman said.

Students living on campus or in the Madison area should feel equally as responsible for recycling, since UW students should want to leave Madison better than they found it, Newman said. 

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