A Guest Post by Elise Moser on Milly Zantow

It’s easy to feel that things have always been the way they are, or that stuff we see every day has always existed. Of course, we know that’s not true — everyone knows there were not always spaceships, or air conditioning, or two-flavored, triple-layered chewing gum. But we don’t always stop to wonder where something comes from (did you know rubber comes from tree sap, and petroleum jelly was an accidental byproduct of oil drilling?) or who invented it.

When I heard that a woman named Milly Zantow invented the triangle symbol for recyclables, I was surprised. First of all, because I had never stopped to think that someone had to invent that (d’oh!). And second of all, because it was invented by a woman. And then, in my surprise, I thought, I want everyone to know a woman did this. And I want KIDS to know a woman did this.

That was the beginning of an adventure. It’s as if I found the very small end of a thread and gently pulled. The thread kept coming, appearing from somewhere in the space-time continuum. I pulled and pulled, and it got thicker. Then it was two threads, and five, and seven threads tangled together, and then a chicken’s egg popped out and chairs made of mushrooms and 2:30 a.m. trains and seagoing catamarans made from plastic water bottles rescued from the garbage — all because I was curious about that woman who created the recycling symbol. Who was she? Why did she do it?

And then it turned out that she hadn’t done it at all. What she did do was create the system of numbers, one through seven, that appear inside the triangles to identify the several categories of plastic. It wasn’t just a matter of clever graphic design (the “chasing arrows triangle” is very clever); it was even more interesting: the story of one woman’s determination, tenacity and creativity. And once I pulled this woman from the past, her whole story tumbled out with her — her childhood on a hardscrabble Oklahoma farm, the classified documents she typed as a young secretary, getting dragooned into looking after a stable full of captive cranes in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. And ultimately, putting her intelligence and energy to work to figure out not only how to recycle plastics, but make it possible on a large scale — and convince people to do it.

The story I started with turned out to be just the first thread, and following it led me to a whole tapestry of real-life characters and events. There were the times when her father woke young Milly to help fight wildfires that threatened their crops; when Milly and her husband, Woody, sponsored Vietnamese “boat people”; and of course the time when Milly phoned Henry Kissinger, at that point the American secretary of state, and convinced him to help her bring home a researcher stranded in Iran without a visa.

The tapestry is rich with the creative ways she found to educate people. The time Milly visited a school where the kids all got Sun Drop soda (a kind of Midwestern Mountain Dew) to drink. Then she collected the empty cans and bought them from the kids, a vivid lesson in the economic benefits of recycling. The way she carried garbage bags full of recyclables when she visited local service clubs, pulling out item after item to illustrate her points as she talked. There are people woven into the tapestry, prisoners on day parole, and folks with developmental disabilities getting work experience at the recycling plant, and the retired ladies of the “Coupon Brigade,” who sorted paper and got to keep any coupons they found. The elderly dairy farmer with the long beard whom I met the night before Milly’s funeral, who used to get shredded newspaper from her to use as bedding for his cows.

Now the book is published, but the tapestry continues to grow. There are the people who knew Milly from church but never realized that the impact of her work was global. There are the local historians, booksellers and environmentalists who want to help spread her story, calling their friends to get articles written and events scheduled and books bought, posting the cover on their Facebook pages. Milly succeeded so well by cultivating an amazing community, which is the core lesson of her story. What Milly Did is nudging that community to extend itself still further — for example to the librarian four hours to the north who had never heard of Milly before but, like me, wants kids to know a woman did this.

Before Milly came along, plastics were not being recycled; she, working with the kids, the moms, the prisoners, the engineers and the volunteers, changed the way things were. Every kid who reads her story and sees that they can use their intelligence and energy to make the world better will be weaving themselves into her tapestry too.


WHAT MILLY DID by Elise MoserMilly Zantow wanted to solve the problem of her town’s full landfill and ended up creating a global recycling standard — the system of numbers you see inside the little triangle on plastics. This is the inspiring story of how she mobilized her community, creating sweeping change to help the environment.

On a trip to Japan in 1978, Milly noticed that people were putting little bundles out on the street each morning. They were recycling — something that hadn’t taken hold in North America. When she returned to Sauk City, Wisconsin, she discovered that her town’s landfill was nearing capacity, and that plastic made up a large part of the garbage. No one was recycling plastics.

Milly decided to figure out how. She discovered that there are more than seven kinds of plastic, and they can’t be combined for recycling, so she learned how to use various tests to identify them. Then she found a company willing to use recycled plastic, but the plastic would have to be ground up first.

Milly and her friend bought a huge industrial grinder and established E-Z Recycling. They worked with local school children and their community, and they helped other communities start their own recycling programs. But Milly knew that the large-scale recycling of plastics would never work unless people could easily identify the seven types. She came up with the idea of placing an identifying number in the little recycling triangle, which has become the international standard.

Milly’s story is a glimpse into the early days of the recycling movement and shows how, thanks to her determination, hard work and community-building, huge changes took place, spreading rapidly across North America.

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