New solid waste specialist aims to reduce recycling contamination

By Paul Ploumis

With Recycling 101 events held across the county, Jefferson County’s Solid Waste department is educating residents of what can and can’t be recycled while also providing tips and answers to common questions.

After becoming the county’s solid waste and clean sweep specialist in early 2021, Caitlin McAleavey has made a point of giving residents across the county more resources and tips about how to be better environmental citizens. To make this process easier, she started holding Recycling 101 events at libraries around the county.

“The main focus is to let people know what can be recycled, but also doubling down on what cannot be recycled,” McAleavey said in an interview with the Daily Union. “People can have the greatest intentions to do their part with recycling, but if we’re constantly recycling stuff that cannot be recycled, it’s just contaminating the stuff that can be recycled.”

 

McAleavey went on to explain what she meant by “contamination,” a term that includes a variety of products that aren’t recyclable, including plastic films and bags, Styrofoam, scrap metal, greasy pizza boxes and electronics.

She emphasized the importance of keeping plastic films and bags out of your municipal recycling — including not bagging your recyclables in the first place — as these types of plastics can jam up equipment at recycling centers. Instead, residents should bring them to a take-back location such as your local grocery store.

“A lot of people assume that it just ends with plastic grocery bags, but really it’s all plastic films, whether it be bread bags, the wrap on toilet paper, clean Ziploc bags, the plastic Amazon packaging bags or even bubble wrap,” McAleavey said.

McAleavey explained other best practices for recycling, including flattening all of your cardboard, keeping lids on plastic bottles and cartons while also keeping them in their original shape, and making sure materials are clean and dry before going into your recycling bin to reduce contamination.

 

Most recycling in Jefferson County ends up at a facility owned by Johns Disposal in Whitewater, making the Recycling 101 events relevant to nearly everybody who lives in the county, as the same recycling rules and regulations must be followed.

At the sorting facility, all of the recyclable materials are processed into bales, which are then sent to respective locations to be made into new products. Paper and cardboard bales go to paper mills, aluminum bales are used to make new cans, tin and steel is melted down for new metal products, glass is sorted by color and is used to either make fiberglass or new glass, and plastics get sent all over, depending on the type of plastic.

“The whole point of recycling is there is an end user that wants the product,” McAleavey said. “So as long as there is a market for that type of material and as long as the bales are fairly free of contamination, it will go on to be something new.”

McAleavey said she plans to continue to hold events across the county to educate as many residents as possible. She already has three events planned for June: June 8 from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Fort Atkinson Senior Center; June 15 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the L.D. Fargo Public Library in Lake Mills; and June 30 from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. at the Jefferson Library.

If people have urgent questions about recycling or can’t attend any of the events, all of the information can also be accessed on the county’s website.

“You can visit the county website because there’s plenty of information there, or you can reach out to me,” McAleavey said. “No questions are too mundane or basic, the whole point is that we try to get our recycling to the best quality possible so products can actually go on to be recycled and live the next part of its life.”