Skip to main content

Responsible unit recycling programs

Wisconsin's recycling law applies equally to all residential and nonresidential locations throughout the state. The law bans disposal or incineration of certain recyclable materials. It also requires every municipality in the state to operate a recycling program to manage those materials. Local units of government, called responsible units or RUs, implement and enforce municipal recycling programs to ensure that residents, businesses and special event managers comply with state and local recycling requirements.

An RU can be a municipality, county, tribe, solid waste management system or another unit of local government responsible for planning, operating and funding a recycling program. About 1,060 RUs implement recycling programs in Wisconsin.

Program requirements

Under Wisconsin's comprehensive recycling law, every citizen in Wisconsin must have residential recycling service or drop-off centers within easy access and should be provided with recycling information. In addition to ensuring provision of recycling services to residents, the law delegates to RUs the responsibility of ensuring that nonresidential locations—including businesses, institutions, special events and construction sites—recycle materials banned from landfills. The law does not require RUs to provide these services themselves.

Key requirements of an effective recycling program

Responsible unit recycling programs must comply with certain requirements listed in state statutes and administrative codes. The basic requirements are summarized below.

For more information on these requirements, see:

Recycling grants to RUs

The state assists with the operation of municipal recycling programs through two grant programs: the RU basic recycling grant program and the recycling consolidation grant program. All RUs that have a DNR-approved effective recycling program are eligible to apply for a recycling grant.

DNR administration and oversight of RU programs

Disposal bans on recyclable materials

The DNR administers the disposal bans and is authorized to issue citations and to collect forfeitures from individuals and companies that violate state recycling laws.

RU program oversight

The DNR provides oversight for RUs, material recovery facilities, and other solid waste hauling, processing and disposal facilities that serve as part of RU programs.

Responsible unit program evaluations and MRF inspections are the primary means for DNR staff to assess the operation of municipal recycling programs. A typical RU program evaluation will include a review of key program elements to ensure compliance with state law and a discussion of strategies to improve overall program performance, including how to manage program costs. If there are areas of the program that need follow-up or modification, DNR staff will discuss the shortcomings and work with the RU to bring the program back into compliance.

Managing program costs

There are a number of strategies available to RUs to manage program costs better and strengthen programs.

Use the following tool to find out how your program costs compare to others in your county or around the state.

Managing collection costs

Collection services are easily the single most expensive part of an RU recycling program, on average, accounting for about 60 percent of RU program costs. Most Wisconsin communities contract for recycling and/or garbage collection, and could better manage costs by designing a good contract. This is essential to ensure the recycling/solid waste programs run smoothly and that you are getting the best service for your money. Success is often a function of how clearly contract details are spelled out.

If you are renewing your contract, consider the following steps.

  • Keep collection costs, disposal costs and processing costs separate.
  • Pay for disposal based on tonnage landfilled.

If you are not able to renew your contract, consider the following suggestions to improve your services or reduce your costs.

  1. Work with your hauler. Ask if they have suggestions on how to improve your collection program and reduce collection and processing costs. Even if those don't result in immediate savings, they will be useful to have in place when you renegotiate your contract.
  2. Negotiate an extension. Consider negotiating changes to your existing contract now in exchange for early extension of the contract. You might be able to introduce cost efficiencies now in return for a guaranteed contract extension.

Funding alternatives for community recycling programs

Traditionally, local governments have relied on the general property tax levy to pay for garbage and recycling services. Today, more communities are shifting to alternative funding sources to cover the cost of providing these services.

  • Pay-as-you-throw. Under this system, residents pay for garbage collection according to the amount they throw away. A PAYT system encourages residents to throw away less and reuse and recycle more. For more information, see the DNR's PAYT guidance document [PDF].

Consolidation or intergovernmental cooperation

Intergovernmental cooperation can help RUs improve their services and reduce overall costs. Responsible units can pool resources through cooperative arrangements, which could help secure dedicated staff or provide broader or more consistent services across a large area. Cooperation can be established by informal or formal intergovernmental agreements. Consolidation is the merging of two or more RUs into a single unit. Both cooperation and consolidation may allow RUs to apply for the recycling consolidation grant.

A costly recycling item – managing glass

Container glass recycling can be challenging and costly to community programs even when processed through a state-of-the-art materials recovery facility. Recycling options are limited in Wisconsin for glass and, when mixed with other recyclables, glass has a low commodity value due to high breakage and contamination. Below are options to help control the economics of glass recycling.

  • Separate collection for glass. Keeping glass separate from other recyclables by providing a separate, dedicated glass drop-off site or curbside collection bin can greatly improve the quality of your glass and its value in the recycling market. A growing number of recycling programs are returning to separate collection of glass.
  • Beneficial uses of processed glass. Depending on the intended use, the processed glass may be eligible for approval under DNR's streamlined Low Hazard Waste Exemption application process for recycled glass. Check with your DNR regional recycling specialist for more information.


Below is a list of resources that may be useful to RU program managers.

Reaching out to neighboring RUs

Increasing participation

Funding alternatives

Plastic bag and film recycling

Managing special materials

The two videos below demonstrate best management practices for handling electronics and universal waste at drop-off sites.

Recycling program contacts

Additional resources