People and Ideas=Incredible Potential!

March 18, 2010
Making it Home Film Fest at the Al. Ringling Theatre: Liz, Milly, Woody

Opening Night at the Al. Ringling Theatre with Baraboo Making It Home project director Liz Nevers and Milly and Woody Zantow. Photo by Jessica Becker.

Milly Zantow is my new hero, but I am not alone. Almost 200 people turned out at the Al. Ringling Theatre last weekend to honor Ms. Zantow at the kick-off for the Making It Home Film Festivals. Milly Zantow is a pioneer in plastics recycling!

“We came up with the idea of a little imprint on the bottom of every container, a little triangle emblem with a number inserted in it and that would identify what the plastic was—1, 2, 3 on up— and so I was real happy when that went through and now days everybody can see that,” Milly explains in a short film about her work directed by Liese Dart, a student of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute’s fall 2009 Environmental Filmmaking Workshop. (All seven “shorts” shown throughout the 2009 Tales from Planet Earth film festival can be viewed here.)

Yes, we can see it and probably take it for granted. I know I did. When I learned that a woman from Wisconsin was behind the national plastics recycling movement, and the EPA adopted practice of labeling, I was impressed.

Milly says that after she returned from a visit to Japan in the 1970s, she started seeing her home surroundings differently. She had been impressed by the way garbage was neatly organized and collected in Japan, so she went to the dump in Sauk County and spent a little time observing. Turns out most of what was coming on the trucks, and blowing around the dump, was plastic in one form or another.

The story continues—she and a friend sold their life insurance policies, bought a machine to recycle plastic, collected and processed the stuff themselves, and even found commercial buyers to use the recycled material to make new products. Much of what Milly was able to accomplish began as simple questions leading her to learn what was going on and why. As she learned more, she educated others. People started coming to her to ask “can this be recycled?”

A visit to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame clearly shows there many Wisconsinites from whom we can draw inspiration and feel state pride. In fact, three new members will be inducted next month: citizen activist Emily Earley, DNR science writer Ruth Hine, and UW-Stevens Point professor of biology George Becker.

We all have our own way of connecting with place, of seeing ourselves in the larger community and landscape, and of understanding how to translate our passions and values into meaningful action. These are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who dedicate their energy and time to help to make the state a place we are lucky to call home.

At the most recent Making It Home Film Festival in Dodgeville, I had the pleasure of meeting many of these people, caring and compassionate regular people, who came in droves to watch free movies and talk about them. The conversations after films like “The Greening of Southie” about a “green” construction project in Boston, or “Upstream Battle” about people who worked together from various interests—tribes, hydroelectric companies, and farmers—to return salmon runs to a threatened river in the Pacific Northwest, were wonderful. I was reminded that it’s not just Wisconsin’s lakes, forests, and seasons that I cherish. I love the spirit of the Wisconsin people, and it’s these people who are part of a larger tradition of caring for the land, the water, and the communities that thrive here.

Now, as I look around my Madison neighborhood and I wonder why things are done the way they are, or not done, I think of Milly. Having the courage to ask questions and think creatively about solutions, as so many Wisconsinites do, will naturally lead to new ways to improve the quality of life for myself and my neighbors. It is spring in Wisconsin and the soil feels very fertile!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Plastics One Through Seven (TRAILER) from Nelson Institute @ UW-Madison on Vimeo.