I've never heard of Milly Zantow before, but according to the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wis., the 86-year-old was a pioneer of post-consumer plastics recycling in the United States. In a story posted Jan. 17, and a related video, Zantow tells how she and her 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." That was in 1979. Zantow got the idea after a visit to Japan in 1978, where she saw plastics being recycled. She wondered why there were no such companies, or recycling infrastructure, in the United States. Plastics packaging was just beginning to take off. Remember, this was before plastic bottles even had resin codes to help identify the material. Zantow knew nothing about plastics, but she soon became an expert. She called processors in Wisconsin and discovered that they already recycled their in-house scrap. According to the story, Zantow deserves at least partial credit for coming up with the idea for a bottle recycling code:
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.Zantow didn't stay in the plastics recycling business for long. She told the State Journal that 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. It's an interesting story and video, definitely worth a look for Plastics Blog readers interested in recycling. For the record, though, I'd like to stress that plastics recycling absolutely dates back before Zantow and E-Z Recycling, even in Wisconsin. One such pioneer was Irv Vincent, founder of N.E.W. Plastics Corp. in Luxemburg, Wis. Vincent founded N.E.W., a blow molder, in 1968. He branched into plastics recycling in the early 1970s, according to a profile that Plastics News published in 2003. Who was the first plastics recycler? That's hard to say. But pioneers like Vincent and Zantow deserve credit for helping to create a sector of the plastics industry that today the entire industry depends on to buttress its sustainability claims.