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There’s Gold in That Garbage

Milwaukee could create jobs by boosting recycling

Jul. 24, 2013
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Milwaukee could create jobs and help the environment by viewing the city’s trash as a valuable resource and a new recycling facility as a way to spur economic development.

Those claims came from the report “Transforming Trash in Urban America,” released jointly by Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the national economic justice advocacy group Partnership for Working Families, which found that cities benefit from robust recycling programs that pay family-sustaining wages.

“We truly believe that change is going to come from cities and that by changing the way that cities think about and manage resources and investments we can build a stronger economy,” Sebrina Owens-Wilson, the primary author of the report, said on a conference call with reporters. “We can put people back to work, clean up the environment and really build a better future.”

About 24% of Milwaukee’s residential waste is diverted from landfills and reused, recycled or composted, below the national average of 34%.

Milwaukee has already improved its recycling rates in recent years, thanks in large part to the city’s new single-stream recycling system, which no longer requires residents to separate their recyclables.

One of the goals of Mayor Tom Barrett’s just-launched sustainability initiative, ReFresh Milwaukee, is to increase the residential recycling rate to 40% by 2020 and encourage businesses to recycle or reuse waste they are now sending to landfills.

The percentage of waste from businesses that is recycled is unknown, since they use commercial haulers and do not have to report their data to the city or the state, said Rick Meyers, the city’s resource recovery program manager.

The ReFresh Milwaukee report set a December 2015 deadline for creating a regional program that improves manufacturers’ industrial waste disposal.

The city is also working to avoid dumping food waste into landfills—where it creates the greenhouse gas methane—and, instead, to use food scraps for compost or other products.


Milwaukee’s Opportunities

Beyond those goals, the coalition is urging the city to take a broader view of an in-the-works recycling facility and see it not merely as a way to recycle material but as an economic development project that provides good-paying jobs and improves the environment.

Earlier this year, the city and Waukesha County agreed to combine their recycling systems and will be soliciting bids to operate and maintain the facility. They’re open to using and perhaps upgrading the city’s current facility at 1313 W. Mt. Vernon Ave. or using a privately owned and operated facility.

The current facility is owned by the city but is operated by a private contractor.

Since the city implemented single-stream recycling at the end of 2011 and no longer requires residents to sort their recyclables, the Mt. Vernon facility functions as a transfer station and does not process recyclables. Material is sent to a private facility in Germantown, where it’s sorted and processed.

In 2011, prior to the introduction of single-stream recycling, the city earned more than $1.8 million in revenue from the sale of recyclables and avoided $839,000 in landfill disposal costs, according to the Department of Public Works.

Meyers said that a new Milwaukee-Waukesha recycling contract would likely be in place by the end of the year.

Jennifer Epps-Addison, economic justice director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said the decision about the facility shouldn’t be made lightly, since its impact could be huge, both economically and environmentally.

“We’re trying to help the city understand that the decisions they make now and the design and implementation of the new facility are going to set up over the long term whether or not it’s going to bring in additional businesses and create additional jobs,” Epps-Addison told the Shepherd.

Temporary jobs would be created in the construction or reconstruction phase, and ongoing jobs running the facilities would be expanded, for example, those hauling and sorting the recyclables. The coalition is asking the city to require strong workforce standards at the facility to turn otherwise low-wage and often part-time jobs into full-time, family-sustaining jobs that employ disadvantaged city residents.

The “Transforming Trash” report found that a forward-thinking recycling facility in Milwaukee would build on the city’s manufacturing expertise and also attract related businesses, such as those involved in organic composting, construction and demolition material reclamation and electronics disassembly.

Epps-Addison said the new facility should be the anchor of a resource recovery park, whether it’s at the existing facility or at any of the city’s many abandoned manufacturing sites.

“We could have the ability to bring in additional development at a very low cost both to the new businesses that would be created but also to the city because we’re cutting out the cost of shipping or transferring those materials,” Epps-Addison said.

The coalition and the ReFresh Milwaukee report also called for improving the rate of commercial recycling, which is done by private companies.

“Too often cities take a hands-off approach towards managing their trash and really leave it up to private trash companies to decide what happens,” Owens-Wilson said. “These are companies that prioritize landfills and they have a vulnerable workforce and they pollute our communities.”

Both reports emphasized the importance of deconstructing abandoned homes, which is more labor-intensive than demolishing a home but yields more material that can be recycled, reused or sold.

The ReFresh Milwaukee report noted that the city doesn’t have enough money to demolish all of the houses on its raze order list and is seeking private or nonprofit entities to deconstruct homes.

“Not only does deconstruction reduce waste to landfill and put resources back into productive use, but it also provides a significant opportunity for job creation as the deconstruction market in Milwaukee is relatively small and currently consists of a handful of firms and purveyors,” the report states.


Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has the power to appoint a commissioner to privatize primarily black and Latino Milwaukee Public Schools in a turnaround district. Will this privatization plan improve student performance?

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