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Solid waste management in Wisconsin

Solid waste is what most of us think of as "trash" or "garbage" we produce at home, work and play. Despite its name, "solid" waste can be solid, liquid or contained gas. Broadly defined, solid waste is any material no longer used for its originally intended purpose, that will be discarded, treated to reclaim its original properties or processed to be used for an alternative purpose.

The DNR strives to ensure proper management of solid waste and works with local governments, private industry, other organizations and individual citizens to reduce waste and increase reuse and recycling.

Solid waste licenses and permits

Several types of facilities or activities related to collecting, storing, transporting, treating and disposing of solid waste require permits or licenses from the DNR. For more information on licenses for solid waste collection and transportation, see waste facility and transporter licenses. The types of facilities listed below may also need DNR licenses:

  • landfills;
  • storage facilities;
  • transfer facilities;
  • solid waste processing facilities;
  • incinerators;
  • woodburning facilities;
  • yard and food residuals composting facilities; and
  • municipal solid waste combustors.

Requesting an Initial Site Inspection

For someone wishing to start up one of these facilities, the first step is to contact the DNR solid waste staff. In most cases, the DNR will perform an initial site inspection to determine whether the proposed location will cause any environmental impacts. In most cases, whoever is proposing the facility will need to describe to the DNR how it will be operated.

For more information on landfill licenses and permits, see the landfill siting process. For more about compost facility licenses, see composting rules and regulations.

Streamlined plan of operation applications

The DNR has simplified the process for some facilities, such as storage, transfer and woodburning facilities, by providing a plan of operation application form. If the DNR approves the plan of operation, we will send you a license application form.

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Timelines for non-landfill facility review decisions and licensing

DNR staff strive to complete the activities below in the indicated timeframes or less. Review times depend on the clarity and completeness of the submittal. A complete submittal and payment are required to begin each review process. For facilities requiring a plan of operation, a license application may only be submitted after the DNR has issued a plan of operation approval.

Action by DNR Review time
Initial site inspection (ISI) Up to 22 business days
ISI opinion Up to 22 business days after completion of ISI
Plan of operation or plan modification decision Up to 65 business days
License is issued Up to 10 business days

Obtaining exemptions for specific processes and materials

There are some exemptions from the DNR's requirements, depending on factors such as the size of the facility and how the end product will be used. The DNR has developed application forms to help streamline the approval of these uses, including the reuse of recycled shingles, lead-painted concrete and street sweepings. Before completing one of these forms, please contact the DNR environmental program associate for the county where the facility will be located to help you determine whether your facility falls under one of the exemptions.

For more information and lists of currently licensed facilities, see waste facility and transporter licenses.

Solid waste topics

For more information on properly managing solid waste, please see the following pages and topics.

History of solid waste management in Wisconsin

Wisconsin's solid waste management program has been in place for more than 40 years. In the first two decades of the program, efforts were primarily directed toward licensing existing solid waste facilities, closing poorly located or operated facilities and ensuring that new solid waste facilities were properly located, designed, constructed, operated, closed and maintained. During this period, the vast majority of municipal and industrial solid waste generated went to landfills.

In the 1990s, things began to change. Wisconsin's recycling law passed in 1990, with most requirements taking effect in 1995. In 1997, ch. NR 538, Wis. Adm. Code, made it easier to beneficially use industrial byproducts. These two milestones resulted in significant and still-increasing quantities of waste being diverted from landfills.