George Dreckmann: ‘We can’t decide to recycle something because we think it’s going to be a good idea; we have to be able to make something out of it.’
George Dreckmann didn’t grow up wanting to be Madison’s garbage and recycling guru.
His first ambition was to be a teacher, but when he graduated from UW-Madison in 1988, there weren’t many teaching jobs available.
A temporary job with the city’s streets department seemed like the perfect place to cool his heels until a teaching job opened up. At the time, the city would pick up just about anything that fit into a trash bag left on the curb, including lawn and plant clippings. That year, the county banned yard waste from the landfill.
Dreckmann was given the difficult task of going around and informing residents they could no longer dump lawn refuse onto the curb.
“We were going to do something unpopular, and I was hired to stand in front of the fan,” Dreckmann explains. But he loved the education component of the job and found a way to sell the new policy without pissing off too many people. Driving around in his Ford pickup, he’d stop at houses and tell residents he would take their current load of yard trash, but after that, they’d have to stop.
“I figured out a way to make it look good, which might be why I have the job I do now,” he says.
Since then, Dreckmann has become a Madison institution. As the city’s recycling coordinator, he’s overseen the implementation of curbside recycling and helped pave the way for a proposed composting program.
About to turn 65, Dreckmann plans to retire in January. Isthmus caught up with him to ask him what he’s learned about garbage during his unexpected career.
When he started in the industry, the country was facing a garbage crisis, with alarms that there was no room left for landfills. That crisis turned out to be exaggerated, but it spurred a recycling boom, which had benefits.
“For a lot of people, the shortage of landfill space was really secondary to the real reason for recycling, which is resource conservation,” Dreckmann says. “There’s no imminent crisis, partly because we’ve pulled all this stuff out of the landfills.”
The rise of recycling in Dane County, for instance, has helped extend the life of its current landfill by 30 years. Still, even in a city like Madison, where people are devoted to recycling, plenty of things end up in the landfill that shouldn’t be.
“Ten to 15% of the trash we [send to the landfill] could be recycled,” he says. “People put it in the wrong bin. We know, for example, that when the recycling cart is full, and people have some recycling left, they’ll put it in the trash.”
So what happens when you throw the wrong thing in the wrong bin? “The garbage fairy comes up and slaps you silly,” Dreckmann jokes.
Actually, trash that is dumped into a recycling bin will eventually be sorted out at the recycling center, although “there’s a cost to that.”
During Dreckmann’s career, he’s seen a shift in which items are most valuable for recycling. Aluminum cans remain a big income generator, selling for $1,600 a ton. But, he adds, “Back in the day, I never thought I’d be getting more money from plastic than aluminum.”
Still, with the recent drop in oil prices, the amount of money plastic fetches has declined. Newspaper was once a big revenue generator for the city, but as physical newspaper subscriptions have declined, so too has this once-reliable market. “We aren’t going to have a paperless society, but we have a less-paper society,” he says.
The changes demonstrate a reality of Dreckmann’s job. “We can’t decide to recycle something because we think it’s going to be a good idea; we have to be able to make something out of it,” he says. “We are not an environmental program, we’re commodity aggregators. We have to have a product we can produce from this material.”
As easy-to-recycle materials get replaced, recycling programs face problems. For instance, the market for glass has declined, but Madison still uses a lot of glass because, says Dreckmann, “we like beer.” So the city has to ship its glass farther, at a higher cost. At the same time, new forms of plastic that are replacing glass often have multiple layers, which make them harder to recycle.
Nevertheless, Dreckmann sees these changes as beneficial. They’re being done to reduce packaging, which means it takes less fuel to ship them, reducing carbon emissions.
“Climate change to me is the most pressing issue on the planet. It’s more dire than, ‘Will Iran get a nuclear weapon?;” he says. “Anything that can lighten our carbon footprint is okay, even if we have to put a little more in the landfill.”
Although Dreckmann has loved his job, he’s ready to move on. He’d like to return to his earlier ambition, and give substitute teaching a try. He wants to climb Machu Picchu and raft through the Grand Canyon before he’s 70.
He suffers from Crohn’s disease, a condition that is aggravated by stress. Dreckmann, as spokesman for the city streets division, also deals with snow emergencies, and those who complain about how the city deals with them.
“If it wasn’t for winter, I’d probably stick around for a couple more years. It’s winter that wears me out,” says Dreckmann. “Crohn’s won’t kill me, but it can make my life miserable. That happens more in January than in July.”
He adds: “I’m looking forward to just being a person who rolls his recycling cart out once a week.”