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Ask the Ecologist:

by Belle Bergner

Q: Why can we only recycle numbers 1 and 2 plastic containers in Milwaukee?
– Al Liu, East Side resident

A: “While plastic containers coded with the numbers 3-7 are recyclable, they have very weak and sparse markets for them,” says Rick Meyers, Recycling Manager for the City of Milwaukee. Numbers 1 and 2 plastics make up 95 % of the recycling stream of plastic, thus all other plastics represent a small portion of the whole plastic market.
“Pricing is very weak for recycled plastics other than numbers 1 and 2 compared to the virgin resin prices of these plastics because very few companies are using these plastics to begin with, and even fewer companies recycling them or purchasing recycled 3-7 numbered plastics, so there are usually more transportation costs for these,” said Meyers. Originally, when Wisconsin passed its recycling law in 1994, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources banned all plastics with numbers 1- 7. However, WDNR changed this regulation to ban only numbers 1 and 2 due to the low volume of plastic in the market other than numbers 1 and 2 that are used in packaging. According to the Container Recycling Institute based in Washington DC, despite our recycling laws around the country, for every plastic bottle being recycled, two are being thrown away. That means more landfills and wasted resources. “Communities around the country that are recycling plastic numbers 3-7 are typically sending them to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that has mechanical sorting. Milwaukee’s MRF doesn’t have a mechanical sorter for plastic; in fact, the technology we have here is getting old and the equipment will need an upgrade soon. We have a mechanical sorter for glass, aluminum and tin, but plastic is recycled manually by a room full of workers,” says Meyers.

Waste Management / Recycle America Alliance, the company that Milwaukee contracts to handle our residential recycling, is looking to build a facility with a mechanical system to handle plastics 3-7. They currently have one in the Chicago area, and some tri-state communities are shipping to this facility.

If you would like Milwaukee to recycle plastic numbers 3-7, write Rick at or call him at 286-2334.

Send your ecological inquiries to our resident ecologist at

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2006