Wind, Plastic, Paper, Landfills, & the Kids Who Made a Difference

Written by Meleesa Johnson

Growing up, I remember watching the July 1969 ticker tape parade held for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins waved from open convertibles. Crowds along Broadway cheered as millions of bits of paper rained down from skyscrapers.

Even as a 13-year-old child, I wondered who cleaned up ALL THAT LITTER.

Fast-forward through the decades to March 6–8, 2017, and instead of New York City, the location is the Marathon County Solid Waste Department in Ringle, Wisconsin.

The event was hardly as auspicious as a ticker tape parade, but the resulting litter was about the same…

Wind gusts reaching 58 miles per hour — with average sustained winds holding at 38 miles per hour — snatched up hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper and all sizes of plastic film from the landfill surface and from trucks as they dumped their loads. The relentless wind carried the debris along, settling it across nearly 100 acres.


While I may have been uncertain about who cleaned up the ticker tape, I knew full-well who had to clean up the massive amount of debris left behind on March 9, 2017…

The staff of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department.

We began cleanup immediately, but given the breadth — and height — of the debris field, we determined that some additional hands would be needed. It was scale operator Jessica Knaup who came up with an idea that saved the day — an idea that involved the D.C. Everest Idea School!

Ms. Knaup had heard that the Idea School has a project-based, hands-on curriculum. She wondered if the students there would want to learn about waste management at the county level while helping to clean up their local environment. As you can see from the pictures above and below, we had quite a spectacle on our hands to make for a great “teachable moment” for area students.


When contacted about the situation, Idea School instructors Luke Stachovak, Jacques du Vair, and Kendra Feathers saw the cleanup project as a great field-classroom learning experience and enthusiastically embraced the opportunity.

Following safety training — and donned with safety gear — the nearly 35 students who arrived for the cleanup project eagerly accepted the charge of ridding the ditches, roadway, wood lot, and farm field of a blanket of litter.

cleanup-getting ready

Students were paired with teachers, chaperones, or Solid Waste Department staff and given trash bags to fill with the loose debris.

Over 100 bags were filled during two separate cleanup events!

cleanup-in the field

Students not only enjoyed a pizza party for their hard work, but they also toured the Solid Waste Department facility and learned about why we recycle, how landfills are built, and why it’s so important to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place.

Landfill tour

They also learned that plastic bags can be recycled at a number of locations in our community and that if more people recycled their plastic bags, fewer bags would be loose to become litter or to get blown around by the wind. (Better yet… Bringing your own reusable shopping bags to stores cuts down on plastic bag use altogether!)

The students from the Idea School weren’t the only ones observing and learning that day. The staff of the Solid Waste Department also learned a great deal at the cleanup event…

They learned that smart students ask challenging questions, forcing us to think about why things are a certain way and to consider if there’s a new or better way of doing things. The staff of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department also learned that by working together with great partners like the D.C. Everest Idea School, we’re all better able to achieve our goals — and have FUN while doing so!

PLEASE NOTE: The Marathon County Landfill and Solid Waste Department staff are educational resources just waiting to be tapped…

Schools can schedule:

  • A waste audit
  • A landfill tour
  • A recycling process tour
  • Presentations on composting, pharmaceuticals, the life cycle of garbage, waste-reduction school fundraisers, and more!

Simply contact the Marathon County Solid Waste and Recycling Information Line at 877-270-3989.


We also have miles of trails, native plant restoration, abundant wildlife, and bluebird nesting boxes that students and non-students alike may find interesting.

Come see why our vision is to be the integrated waste management system of choice — fostering economic development, while protecting the environment and public health here in Marathon County.

If your group has an interest in touring the Marathon County Solid Waste Department site, please call me at 715-446-3101, ext., 104.


Meleesa_JohnsonMeleesa Johnson

Director  |  Marathon County Solid Waste Department

Meleesa Johnson has been the Director of solid waste management for Marathon County since 2009. She oversees solid waste programming and facilities serving Central and North Central Wisconsin. Under her leadership, the Solid Waste Department transitioned from primarily a landfill business to a regional resource for residents, businesses, and local governments working on waste reduction and recycling programming as means of creating greater sustainability. Meleesa has been focused on environmental protection issues since starting college in 1996, eventually earning a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning. She is a Morris K. Udall Congressional Scholar for Excellence in National Environmental Policy and was recently named as UW–Green Bay’s Earth Caretaker. Meleesa’s passions are her children and grandchildren, as well as public service, serving as president of the Stevens Point Common Council and on the Portage County Board of Supervisors.  Email Meleesa Johnson.

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