Nel's New Day

August 5, 2014

Zantow: She Made a Difference

Filed under: Environment — trp2011 @ 8:28 PM
Tags: , , ,

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.

MillyFrom 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.

Milly 2Zantow 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.

April 19, 2014

Saving the World, One Step at a Time

Climate change has arrived, according to most of the scientists in the world, and the gridlocked Congress ignores all the problems that it has already brought. Yet in the nation and other places around the world, large and small steps are helping to save the planet. Here are a few stories to illustrate Margaret Mead’s belief in people: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Keystone_MapProponents of building the Keystone XL pipeline have hit another snag, at least temporarily. A decision was expected by the end of May, but this hitch may postpone any conclusion until after the November elections. In February a judge ruled that the transfer of approval of the revised route to the governor’s office from the Nebraska Public Service Commission is unconstitutional on the state level. The attorney general has appealed, but if the ruling is upheld, the commission could take seven months to a year to make a decision about the route. The original route went through ecologically fragile wetlands of the Nebraska sand hills, and environmental advocates and landowners objected to the revision.

Monsanto products may still be prevalent in the United States, but Chile has won out against them. The “Monsanto Law” there would have given big business “the right to patent seeds they discover, develop or modify.” In the U.S. that means genetically modified seeds that produce unlabeled unhealthy food. As in many other countries, farmers in Chile exchange seeds, but Monsanto would have forced all of them to purchase their seeds from multinational agribusiness companies every year. GMOs have already damaged farming in India after Monsanto promised magic seeds that increased productivity and profit with decreased labor. GMO seeds require more water, and the crops failed to grow at the same rate that the debt of farmers in India increased. About 200,000 of them committed suicide.

Chile still isn’t completely safe: the Monsanto could be reworded and resubmitted. Corporate lobbyists and corporate stakeholders don’t quit. Yet the people have defeated a massive corporation for now. The end result affects people in the U.S. because Chile imports food here.

The first three months of the year saw many articles from the South about the ways that the energy industries were destroying water quality. Duke Energy was the worst, and they fought to keep secret their coal ash dumps that spill arsenic and mercury into North Carolina’s drinking water.  Whenever Waterkeeper Alliance tried to sue Duke, the state’s Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) blocked or delayed the lawsuits. The state agency got support from Gov. Pat McCrory who worked at Duke for 28 years who appointed a secretary for DENR who described his job as being a “partner” to the companies that it regulates. That’s the agency with the responsibility for investigating and penalizing polluters.

Over a month ago, a Waterkeeper pilot flew over an abandoned Duke Energy plant and photographed workers running a hose for a pond of toxic coal ash into an adjacent canal. This was a site carefully watched because the banks of one pond had collapsed over 30 years ago and all the old ponds were poorly built. Peter Harrison and other riverkeepers took a boat up the canal to take water samples but faced a local deputy sheriff on the way back. Notified by the plant’s security guards, he let them go with a warning for being on the canal but told Harrison the next day that he would be arrested for trespassing if he came back.

The law persisted in insisting that the canal was private property until the sheriff consulted with the county attorney. Waterways are public property in North Carolina. As Harrison said, “If you can float a boat on it, it’s public.” And yes, Duke was illegally dumping coal ash—61 million gallons. The Waterkeepers garnered more public support after a video of the encounter with the deputy sheriff was on the The Rachel Maddow Show. DENR is under grand jury investigation for failing to regulate Duke Energy, and Waterkeepers are working to gain access to documents that Duke wants to keep secret.

While people in Beijing and Paris choke on pollution and have their photos taken in front of fake landmarks as the real ones are obscured, coal use in the United States is shrinking. Electricity production from coal has fallen from 53 percent in 2000 to under 40 percent.  The country has used so much of its resources that easily mined coal may disappear in about ten years.

Approximately 10 percent of the coal mined in the United States is exported, requiring terminals. Washington state has turned down a series of these projects after activists and potential neighbors defeated them in their worry about climate change and local air pollution and congestion. Last week developers turned to help from Montana industry after they lost the battle to build two coal ports. “Lots and lots of ground-level organizing. And I’ll tell you, the opposition is better at it than we are,” said Wendy Hutchinson of Millennium Bulk Terminals, which is seeking to build the $643 million Longview dock on the Columbia River.

While the GOP lawmakers remain ostriches by ignoring the danger of major U.S. cities disappearing under the water with climate change, one place in Great Britain is being proactive. New Jersey thinks that it can hold back the ocean with bigger sand dunes, but West Sussex decided to realign its coast, moving it several miles inland.  Instead of spending millions of dollars to annually repair the damage from ocean storms, they will have a one-time expenditure of $46.5 million to move a sea wall over a mile away from the ocean, leaving a buffer zone of marsh to absorb its energy just as it was hundreds of years ago. Those willing to spend the millions to move the sea wall know that the cost will continue to rise because climate change increases the sea level each year.

The project was finished only weeks before last December’s storms, and the idea worked. A developer of 308 vacation rental homes near the realignment said in amazement, “You can see that it is progress, not defeat…. It’s the first winter in years we haven’t had to deal with surface flooding,” he added. “We were all hoping the project just wouldn’t make it any worse, but it appears to actually be making it much better.” The project also added walking and bike paths for the tourists and extended the tourism season because of a decreased problem of flooding. The money also provided a bird habitat in accordance with the E.U. Habitats and Birds Directive which requires the country to compensate for wildlife habitat destroyed elsewhere along the coast.

In New York, an anonymous group called Rotten Apple is recycling objects by turning them into something useful.  A seat on a bicycle rack, a newspaper kiosk into a cold weather clothing bank, even directions on how to make composting bins out of abandoned wood pallets—these are just a few of their ideas. More photos of the projects are available here



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