I had planned to finish my three-part series on recent GOP House legislation—or the lack thereof—but a news item about an environmental activist came to my attention. It’s a wonderful story about one woman who made a huge difference in recycling throughout the United States. I’ll move back to the depressing news from the House tomorrow.
Wisconsin is now known primarily for Scott Walker, the governor who has worked hard to destroy the middle class through wiping out unions. But in the past, Wisconsin was a leader in progressivism. For the first part of the twentieth century, the Wisconsin Idea was that efficient government required control of institutions by voters instead of special interests and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government. Faculty from the University of Wisconsin served as experts on governmental commissions and expanded educational opportunities. Legislators were able to use facts for improving laws. The model was copied in countries around the globe.
The state’s Progressive movement came from within the Republican Party. Laws included state control of corporation stock issues, regulation of transportation and insurance companies, and fixing of railroad fares. The legislature passed a model workers’ compensation law to protect people injured on the job and laws to regulate factory safety. Wisconsin encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts.
Proponents of the Wisconsin Idea did away with monopolies, trusts, high costs of living, and predatory wealth because these stopped the advancement of human welfare and progress. Developing labor and workers’ rights reforms, German immigrants used systems from Germany based on the belief that employers are obligated to care for employees and keep paying them as they grow old. The emphasis on well-funded universities came from the German educational system. Legislation also prohibited pollution and police brutality.
Much of the 1930s federal New Deal legislation, including Social Security, was drafted by Wisconsin citizens, and Wisconsin’s politics led to the country passing the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The concept of primary elections came from Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea also moved into the East Coast states and, to some extent, the Midwest.
From this rich progressive background came Milly Zantow, born in 1923, who died last Sunday at the age of 91 in Prairie du Sac (WI). Thirty-five years ago, she started a recycling revolution after a visit to Japan. Seeing bins on Japanese city streets and curbsides that allowed separation of plastic, glass, and metal from garbage, she thought about all the litter and plastics that people threw away every day in the United States. In 1978, the Sauk County overflowing landfill was 10 years ahead of schedule in its capacity, and plastic bottles whipped in the wind.
She started by asking an official at Borden Milk’s Milwaukee plant what it did with flawed jugs. “He said, ‘We just pitch it back, melt it down and run it through again,” Zantow explained.
Then she talked to someone at Flambeau Plastics in Baraboo about whether the company could melt down plastics and run them through again. He told her that it wasn’t practical because there were too many different kinds of plastics. Two months short of a two-year business degree at the age of 55, the mother of three visited the science department at UW-Baraboo where she learned to conduct water-weight tests and burn tests on plastic containers.
Zantow didn’t back down even when people laughed at her. She started with recycling milk jugs that people left at locations in her area. The recycled plastic had to be ground, and a grinder cost $5,000. In 1979, she and friend Jenny Ehl cashed in their life insurance policies and started E-Z Recycling, most likely the first business of its kind in the country. Zantow said her parents always told her: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Ehl of Sauk City, now 81, said, “It was hard, manual labor to pick up all the stuff and process it all.” This included cleaning and removing labels from plastic bottles. At its peak, E-Z had five employees and lots of volunteers. Zantow frequently worked seven days a week, getting up at 4 a.m. on Saturdays to load semitrailers with 900-pound bales of newspaper and cardboard.
One volunteer, Liz Nevers, said, “She was an inspiration for many of us.” Nevers went back to school and got a master’s degree from the UW Institute of Environmental Studies in land resources, with a focus on the economics of plastics recycling.
Another volunteer, John Reindl, became recycling coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources. He pointed out, “She wasn’t the expert in the field. She wasn’t somebody who had worked in this field for 20 years. She just had a determination that she was going to do it.”
When Zantow expanded her business beyond milk jugs into a large variety of plastics, she developed the system to classify plastics—those numbers between 1 and 7 in a triangle on the bottom of plastic containers. By 1988, she had persuaded the Society of the Plastics Industry to use the codes allow recyclers to divert the different types of plastic to specific recycling streams. These codes are now are used around the world.
E-Z “never made a nickel,” according to Zantow. She sold it in 1982 to a Milwaukee company that folded in 1984. But she kept working. Rep. Spencer Black said Zantow was a major contributor to the framing of the 1990 statewide recycling law. Requiring municipalities to collect plastic, metal, paper, and glass, the law, signed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, was considered the most comprehensive state recycling program in the country.
Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the UW-Madison, said, “She is one of Wisconsin’s unsung environmental heroes, who deserves a place among more well-known names, such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson.”
Wisconsin—and the entire country—needs more Milly Zantows and fewer Scott Walkers.