Big Things, Little Things :: No Such Thing As Zero Waste

Written by Meleesa Johnson

A few years back there was a commercial for a very popular, very socially conscious car company.  The commercial starts out with the vehicle traveling the beautiful open roads, blue skies overhead, cute little animals skittering about.  The byline for this commercial—“zero waste” to landfills in the production of the vehicle.  Was this reality or a marketing ploy? 

Over the course of the past few months Wausau residents and visitors alike have watched the deconstruction and demolition of the Wausau Mall.  There was a great deal of angst about not only the demise of this city center landmark, but also what some thought was a waste of resources.  It took an enormous amount of steel, concrete, windows, drywall, and flooring to ready that structure for millions of visitors, now seemingly destined for a landfill.  But was the perception about that massive structure heading to a landfill accurate?  

Photo courtesy of

Each month I receive a medication via FedEx or UPS.  You know, one of those specialty medications that has to come from the pharmacy with which my employer’s insurance worked out the best pricing deal.  The medication must be kept cold.  The small package of medication comes packed in a cellphone and foil-fused bag, which is packed inside a 15” x 12” Styrofoam cooler.  The cooler contains three ice packs.  The cooler is shipped inside a cardboard box with several dozen sheets of paper (invoice, product information, FDA-required warnings of side-effects, etc.).  This is all shipped next day air…each and every month.

There is a data point that is frequently used to demonstrate the amount of waste Americans produce; 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day.  When I share this data point with audiences I quickly see hands raised and audience members whispering to each other that they “recycle everything” and have a backyard compost bin, so surely they do not produce as much waste as “other people.”  I then gently burst their bubble and remind them that the fact that they are clothed, ate food, bathed, and brushed their teeth supports the data point as a reality.  From the extraction of raw materials or recovery of recyclable materials, to transportation of materials to manufacturers, to manufacturing, to transportation to wholesalers and retailers, to materials made to display the new product, waste is produced and resources are used. 

Crews work to demolish the Wausau mall. Photo courtesy of

But let’s get back to the mall, the “big thing”.  Our eyes tell us this is a monstrous structure, and our brains automatically deduce that the size is a natural equivalency to the amount of waste produced.  The truth is that most of the demolished mall is not in a landfill.  While some waste products, like asbestos ceiling tiles and old insulation did indeed go the Bluebird Ridge Landfill, most of the waste products were salvaged for reuse and recycling.  Concrete walls and blocks were ground into aggregate for roads.  Steel girders will be sent to a foundry and smelted into new girders or panels for new vehicles.  The Mall will live on in projects in our own community and across this country.


Now, to the “little things.”  The medication package that is left on my front stoop each month is mostly unnoticed by others.  It is somewhat innocuous, as we have become immune to packages on front stoops.  However, most of the items in that package will be destined for landfill disposal.  Of course, the sheets of paper and the cardboard box will be put in the recycling bin and will become new paper and boxes.  The ice packs can be reused, but my neighbors now shut the door on me when I try to pawn off the ice packs.  The Styrofoam container can be reused, but again, how many Styrofoam containers does one person need.  The cute little purple cellophane and foil-infused bag can and has been used for gift packaging.  But the point is, a decision was made that this was the way I must receive my medication.  That decision, based on pricing and negotiated contracts, nets a lot of waste that I need to manage.

The notion of zero waste is a lofty goal, one for which we should continue to strive.  The car company is indeed working to reduce their need for landfill disposal.  Daily we make decisions about the little things like opting to use a reusable container, instead of a single-use plastic bag for our lunch sandwich.  We look to sourcing our meat and vegetables from local farmers and growers.  We look for retail items that have packaging that is recyclable or has little or no packaging.  We make sure we know what goes in the recycling bin and what doesn’t go in the bin.  We look to thrift stores and rummage sales to have gently-used items reused at someone else’s home.  And, we divert wasted food to backyard compost bins. 

Big things.  Little things.  They all matter in our journey to “zero waste”.  To learn more about recycling right, building the best compost pile in the neighborhood or reducing waste in the workplace, contact the “what do you do with experts..” of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department.   

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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