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Cleaning up storm debris

Communities, businesses and residents can clean up storm debris in a way that protects their immediate health and safety and reduces longer-term risks to human health and the environment by keeping hazardous materials out of groundwater, surface waters and soil.

For communities managing storm debris, license and approval exemptions exist with certain operational requirements. Being familiar with solid waste regulations related to storm debris before an event can save on time and disposal costs.

Tools for Communities

Planning for storm events

The DNR has created guidance on navigating Wisconsin's requirements for storm debris disposal.

The DNR does not have the funding to provide dumpsters or pay for hazardous waste collection sites. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be able to provide some financial assistance for debris cleanup. You can find contacts and links for federal disaster assistance on the Wisconsin Emergency Management website [exit DNR].

U.S. EPA Tools

The U.S. EPA has created resources for communities establishing a waste management plan prior to an emergency event or managing storm debris.


Preparing to clean up

Before starting the cleanup process, you should do the following things.

  1. If you have been evacuated, be sure you have received approval from authorities to return to your home or property.
  2. Make sure there are no immediate hazards, such as downed power lines, before entering an area.
  3. Turn off the electricity at the main breaker or fuse box, even if the power is off in your community. That way, you can decide when your home is dry enough to turn it back on.
  4. Make a list of materials that you know were in a given area (such as a garage or a basement). Pay special attention to any potentially hazardous materials such as paint, solvents, cleaning supplies, motor oil and materials containing asbestos.
  5. If a hazardous substance spill has occurred, you should notify the Wisconsin DNR Spill Hotline at 800-943-0003. The DNR regional spill coordinator will be able to provide oversight on hiring a cleanup contractor, cleanup procedures, disposal options and documenting the cleanup. For more information on spill reporting and cleanup, see spills.
  6. Make sure you have space and/or containers to sort materials that need to be disposed of in different ways. Determine which items may need to dry out before disposal.

If you have questions, contact the DNR solid waste staff for your county.

The following publications have additional information on managing debris.


Sorting through debris

In many cases, hazardous materials, recyclable or compostable items, and materials that should be sent to a landfill will have been mixed together. Start the cleanup process by separating materials so you can dispose of them in a way that protects your health and the environment.

General cautions

  • If there is standing water in an area or you are dealing with a large debris pile, be cautious as there may be sharp objects, such as nails, or other hazards that you cannot see.
  • If your building/structure was built between the mid-1900s and 1970s, asbestos may be in materials such as pipe/furnace insulation, flooring, ceiling tiles and roofing materials. If so, you will need to use caution in dismantling/demolishing the structure. See more information and requirements for safe handling and disposal of asbestos in a licensed landfill from the DNR's asbestos program.
  • Keep all tree waste and other yard waste separate from other debris and allow it to dry for use as timber wood, mulch or wood chips, firewood/stove wood, boiler fuel or compost.

If you are concerned about contaminated materials or have other questions specific to your situation, contact the DNR solid waste staff for your county.

Storm debris in waterways

The DNR Waterways Program has information related to cleaning up debris in lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.


Materials to separate and properly manage

Items to take to a household hazardous waste collection site/event

Collect and contain the following hazardous materials in their original containers in a plastic bin or tub and take to a household hazardous waste collection site or event, often referred to as a Clean Sweep. Do not mix the contents of containers together.

  • Antifreeze,
  • Gasoline cans,
  • Motor oil,
  • Paints, stains and varnishes,
  • Paint thinner,
  • Pesticides/animal poisons,
  • Solvents, or
  • Other cleaning supplies and chemicals
Items to recycle

If possible, set the following items aside to dry out and then recycle them. Let the recycler know if items may have been contaminated by chemicals in the water.

Many other common household items, including containers and cardboard, should be recycled if they are not contaminated. See a full list of what to recycle in Wisconsin.

Items to send to a landfill

Many of these can normally be reused or recycled, but if they have been contaminated by floodwaters they should be landfilled.

  • Cabinets and cabinet hardware,
  • Cardboard (could be composted if not contaminated),
  • Carpet (some recyclers may still take this check with local retailers or waste officials),
  • Drywall,
  • Flooring (wood, vinyl, linoleum, etc.),
  • Food,
  • Furniture,
  • Insulation,
  • Painted or treated wood,
  • Plastics,
  • PVC pipes,
  • Vinyl siding (unless recycling options are available), and
  • Shingles (asphalt roofing shingles).
Items to send to a landfill or dispose of on your own property

These materials may be disposed of on private property, with the property owner's permission, only if they are not placed in a floodplain, wetland or in critical habitat areas and do not cause a nuisance to neighbors. You may also dispose of these items in a landfill.

  • Brick,
  • Broken pavement,
  • Concrete or reinforced concrete not painted with lead-based paint,
  • Rock or stone,
  • Sandbags that are made of biodegradable materials (jute, burlap or other biodegradable materials),
  • Sand removed from non-biodegradable sandbags, and
  • Wood not treated or painted with preservatives or lead-based paint.

See coping with flooding and a DNR document on proper sandbag disposal [PDF] for more information.


Arranging for disposal

Check with your municipality or county to see if special drop-off sites have been set up or whether they recommend any disposal options. There may be agencies or organizations helping with the cleanup efforts that can assist you in arranging for disposal.

The U.S. EPA has created a map of potential recycling and disposal locations.

Please note: The DNR does not have the funding to provide dumpsters or pay for hazardous waste collection sites. FEMA may be able to provide some financial assistance for debris cleanup. You can find contacts and links for federal disaster assistance on the Wisconsin Emergency Management website [exit DNR].

Disposing of hazardous waste materials from a household or farm

Collect household hazardous materials listed above and take them to a household hazardous waste collection facility or a clean sweep collection event. For information about clean sweep locations visit the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection website [exit DNR]. Private waste services may be able to assist with this material. Otherwise, contact your local municipality for other options.

Disposing of hazardous waste materials from a business

Most businesses cannot take hazardous materials to facilities or events that collect household hazardous waste. Check with your local clean sweep/household hazardous waste collection site to determine the restrictions.

Businesses that cannot use these resources should contract with a licensed hazardous waste disposal facility. See our lists of licensed hazardous waste disposal facilities and licensed hazardous waste transporters.

If you have further questions, contact your regional DNR hazardous waste specialist.

Disposing of tree, wood or yard waste

Keep trees and other large yard materials separate from other debris and, if wet, allow them to dry. You can also do this with clean untreated and unpainted wood. Options for dealing with these materials include the following.

  • Contact your local municipality to see if there are any special collections or services for downed trees, tree limbs and other yard waste.
  • If you have access to a wood chipper, you can make excellent mulch out of tree waste materials. Your community may also provide seasonal chipping services.
  • If you have space, compost smaller branches and other yard materials. By law, these items cannot be disposed of in Wisconsin landfills. For more information, see Home Composting: Reap a Heap of Benefits (WA-072) [PDF].
  • Open burning of tree waste or untreated wood should be a last resort. The DNR discourages open burning of any material because of health risks from air pollution. To burn wood waste, you will need prior DNR approval and the wood must be dried for a minimum of 30 days. It is your responsibility to know where you are burning and what state and local restrictions apply. Contact local authorities if you have any questions. For more information on burn permits and regulations, including how to get a permit, see DNR Forestry Program
  • An alternative last resort is to use an existing, licensed wood burning facility after the wood has been thoroughly dried out.
Where to find recyclers
Landfill disposal

Consult lists of licensed haulers, transfer stations and landfills or check your local phone book for listings.

If you end up tearing down a structure or need to dispose of debris from a destroyed structure, see Handling waste from demolished structures for more details on finding landfills and transporters, along with other information.