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NORTH FREEDOM — We may not know exactly what the little numbers inside the recycling triangles on plastic containers mean, but most Americans have probably taken them for granted for 20 years.

Thank Milly Zantow for that.

The 86-year-old North Freedom resident started a recycling revolution from the recycling center she founded in 1979 in Sauk County. Zantow was one of the first people in America to begin sorting consumer plastics.

“She, in my mind, was the pioneer who got plastics recycling started,” said John Reindl, the retired longtime head of Dane County’s recycling program. “Milly did what nobody else was doing.”

Inspired in Japan

In 1978 — inspired by a trip to Japan, a nation that even then was recycling extensively — Zantow, then 55, began investigating how she could begin recycling in Sauk County.

It started with a simple question. Zantow called Borden Milk’s Milwaukee plant and asked what happens when a jug comes down the line with a flaw in it.

“He said, ‘We just pitch it back, melt it down and run it through again,’” Zantow said last week, seated in the living room of the tidy home she shares with her husband, Forrest “Woody” Zantow. “Huh. That’s all I need to know,” came Zantow’s reply.

Milk jugs were just the start. There were detergent bottles and all manner of other plastic bottles, Zantow said. She talked to an executive at Flambeau Plastics in Baraboo about whether the company could melt down used plastics and run them through again. He told her there were too many different types of plastics for that to be practical.

The mother of three, two months short of a two-year business degree, Zantow went to the science department at UW-Baraboo and learned to conduct water-weight tests and burn tests on plastic containers.

In 1979, she and friend Jenny Ehl cashed in their life insurance policies, bought a commercial plastics grinder for $5,000 and started E-Z Recycling, what some believe was the first business of its kind in the country.

“It was a lot of work,” said Ehl, 77, of Sauk City. “It was hard, manual labor to pick up all the stuff and process it all,” including cleaning and removing labels from plastic bottles.

At its height, the company had five employees, but most of the people working there were volunteers. Zantow often worked seven days a week, getting up at 4 a.m. on Saturdays to load semitrailers with 900-pound bales of newspaper and cardboard.

“She was an inspiration for many of us,” said Liz Nevers, 62, a former E-Z volunteer who went back to school for a master’s degree from the UW Institute of Environmental Studies in land resources, with a focus on the economics of plastics recycling.

She had determination

Zantow’s enthusiasm was infectious, said Reindl, the former Dane County recycling chief who frequently volunteered at E-Z. He also was recycling coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources.

“She wasn’t the expert in the field,” he said. “She wasn’t somebody who had worked in this field for 20 years. She just had a determination that she was going to do it.”

Many municipal recycling coordinators at the time didn’t want to bother with plastics because they were too expensive to handle, Reindl said.

“She was the first one that I know of anywhere in the country that was doing this, and all of us so-called experts, I think, just pooh-poohed the idea,” Reindl said. “But Milly persisted. Through her own tenacity and personality she got people like me interested.”

Zantow wanted to come up with a simple system to classify plastics, and that led to the development of the number code that identifies the polymer type.

At the urging of recyclers such as Zantow across the country, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed the numbered codes in 1988, said Tisha Petteway, a spokeswoman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They allow recyclers to divert the different types of plastic to specific recycling streams and now are used around the world.

“Through the years what’s happened is the markets increased for (plastics) because the technologies improved, and now it’s a very valuable thing to recycle,” Reindl said. “And I really have to credit Milly.”

‘Never made a nickel’

Meanwhile, Zantow fielded requests to help set up recycling programs from municipalities all over the country and as far away as Egypt, China and Mexico, the Zantows recalled.

She said the business “never made a nickel” in the few years she ran it, and she sold it in 1982 to a Milwaukee company that folded in 1984.

Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, said Zantow was a major contributor to the framing of the 1990 statewide recycling law.

“There were a few people, and she was one of them, who were pioneers in showing that recycling could work,” he said.

When then-Gov. Tommy Thompson signed the recycling bill, which required municipalities to collect plastic, metal, paper and glass to keep them out of landfills, Wisconsin’s was considered the most comprehensive state recycling program in the country.

Since selling E-Z, Zantow has concentrated on church work and other volunteerism. A quadruple bypass surgery in 2002 has slowed her down, she said.

Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the UW-Madison, called Zantow a role model and an inspiration.

“Her story is a testimony to the leadership role Wisconsin has played at the national level in environmental activism, policy and legislation,” he said. “She is one of Wisconsin’s unsung environmental heroes, who deserves a place among more well-known names, such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson.”

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