New study: Wisconsin facing serious recycling challenges

Media Contacts
Megan Severson

Report addresses recycling programs’ problems and potential solutions statewide

Wisconsin Environment

MADISON–Wisconsin is failing to make progress in its recycling and waste reduction efforts, according to a new study from Environment Wisconsin Research & Policy Center. The second annual State of Recycling in Wisconsin highlights how structural challenges, the rise of plastic, effects of failing to recycle, the impact of Wisconsin’s plastic preemption law, and trends in the state’s recycling system. 

The report reflects on how reliance on East Asian export markets, which are no longer reliably taking American waste, have impacted some statewide programs. It also shows that this is only part of the problem.

“The reality is plastics are so hard to recycle and so low value that we could only consistently afford to collect and recycle it when China was willing to buy it,” said Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center’s State Director Megan Severson. “Now that we are left to deal with it ourselves, plastic is choking our recycling system as effectively as it chokes ocean life.”  

The report outlines how Wisconsin has managed, unlike other states, to keep collected recyclables out of landfills but is held back by a lack of collection compared to other states. It also covers how Wisconsin’s preemption law, which prohibits municipal governments from banning certain signal-use plastics, contributes to high concentrations of microplastics in Lake Michigan.   

“It is urgent that we change the culture from a throw-away society to a zero-waste mentality—in neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and municipalities,” said David Rhoads, Co-Chair of the Zero Waste Committee of Greater Racine. “Local leaders and groups can help by educating their communities about ways to address the recycling crisis, such as working with grocery stores to reduce single-use plastic bags and with restaurants to eliminate polystyrene, and urging residents to stop using single-use plastic items.”

Along with assessing state data, the report presents wide-ranging reforms necessary to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or is burned every year. Policies include cutting back on the amount of unnecessary plastic waste being created, encouraging the reuse of already existing objects, and making sure that products are recycled at the end of their working life. 

“It’s entirely within our power to fix the system, but what is missing is the necessary sense of urgency,” said U.S. PIRG Education Fund Zero Waste Director Alex Truelove, who co-authored the report. “Recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts will need to play an important role in the fight against microplastic pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges.”


The Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting Wisconsin’s air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help Wisconsinites make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information about Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center or for additional copies of this report, please visit