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Milly Zantow: Recycling Revolutionary

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When Milly Zantow learned about a problem in her Sauk County community – a landfill closing much earlier than it should – she took action. Seeing for herself that there was too much plastic waste, she thought it should be recycled. At that time, no one was recycling plastics, but Milly worked with others to make it happen.

She went on to come up with the idea for the numbering system to identify plastics for recycling used around the world, and she helped with the writing of Wisconsin’s recycling law.

This is Milly Zantow: Recycling Revolutionary, one in a series of biographies that highlight the game-changing contributions of Wisconsonites.

figuring out how to recycle plastics

We have Zantow to thank for Resin Identification Codes (RIC). From Wikipedia:

In its original form, the symbols used as part of the RIC consisted of arrows that cycle clockwise to form a triangle that encloses a number. The number broadly refers to the type of plastic used in the product, by chronological order[citation needed] of when that plastic became recyclable:

• 1 signifies that the product is made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (beverage bottles, cups, other packaging, etc.)
• 2 signifies high-density polyethylene (HDPE) (bottles, cups, milk jugs, etc.)
• 3 signifies polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (pipes, siding, flooring, etc.)
• 4 signifies low-density polyethylene (LDPE) (plastic bags, six-pack rings, tubing, etc.)
• 5 signifies polypropylene (PP) (auto parts, industrial fibres, food containers, etc.)
• 6 signifies polystyrene (PS) (plastic utensils, Styrofoam, cafeteria trays, etc.)
• 7 signifies other plastics, such as acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate and polylactic acid (PLA).

testing the plastics
Plus, more about Milly Zantow’s story and inspiration from PBS Wisconsin Education’s Level 3 teacher’s resource docs about Zantow (no longer online):

“Milly knew that Japan recycled and that Wisconsin recycled some things. She started by learning more about plastic and then searched for answers to her questions.

“She asked a milk company in Milwaukee what they did about defects in the plastic milk jugs they made. They told her that they just tossed them back into the production line, melted them down, and made new ones. When she heard that, she thought that recycling plastic had to be possible.

“She went to area plastics companies to find out if they would they use post-consumer plastic to make their products. They didn’t say no, but it was complicated. The many types of plastic used to make products couldn’t be melted together to make something new. Using post-consumer plastic to make products would take a lot of work. Someone would have to collect all the plastic waste, sort it, clean it, and grind it up. Milly decided that someone would be her.”

sorting with RIN

• Milly Zantow: Recycling Revolutionary, a PBS Wisconsin Educator’s Guide Google doc.
• Milly Zantow: Recycling Revolutionary, Google slides with audio.
• Wisconsin Biographies Educator Resources

Also from PBS Wisconsin Education: Gaylord Nelson and how Earth Day got started.

Plus, watch more videos about recycling, including:
• How this Japanese town is working to produce zero waste
• The Big Sort: An Insider’s Tour of a Recycling Plant
• The Life of a Plastic Bottle
• What is the Circular Economy?

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