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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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The goal of zero waste in Madison
Paul Abramson thrives on what others throw away
Abramson: Identifying potential littering hot spots.

"I'm a recycling geek," says Paul Abramson, "and I've been having fun figuring out how to change the way Madison takes out trash."

You'll feel his presence at summer events such as the Northside Independence Day celebration, La Fête de Marquette and Orton Park Festival. He and volunteers will be manipulating you, often subtly, pushing you toward a goal of "zero waste."

Abramson started Paolo Verde Consulting to help events recycle as much of their trash as possible. "Last summer, at the Willy Street Co-op annual meeting party at La Fête, we reached 97% efficiency," he says. "That's about the best you can do, because you're always going to send something to the landfill."

Abramson grew up in Newark, N.J., and earned a communications degree at UW-Oshkosh. He worked at a variety of Fox Valley radio stations, often producing special events. In 1986 he moved to Madison to become event director for Wisconsin Public Radio.

His answers to my questions create a narrative.

"It is complex," Abramson says of his work. It includes event planning, small-scale geography, crowd control and amateur psychology.

"Psychology or at least social work," he says. "For me it's exciting because it draws on all of the disciplines and skills I've built up over a lifetime.

"As a person who grew up in the industrial part of New Jersey, I don't think I was very aware of the notion of environmentalism. I really didn't learn much about it until I lived in Wisconsin.

"I got interested in doing this recycling thing in 1992 or '93. I walked into a festival and saw that it was a great party and run really well, but the trash was totally a mess. I couldn't believe it, because here I am in the policy-wonk east-side PC capital, and they handled the trash just like they do at motorcycle races. Or did.

"So I said to one of the leaders, 'This is really a mess,' And he said, 'Well, if you're so smart, do something.' I began volunteering. Around 2009 I started doing it professionally.

"If the organizations that run events are not particularly attentive to any of this it's not surprising, because people think of the trash last. And what I've been trying to do is make them think of it first.

"It's a matter of taking control of something that no one wants to recognize, and making gentle suggestions to people who are at parties, trying to relax, trying to forget the inventions that fill modern life. That's the fun of it.

"Most people may want to do something about recycling, but they might not think about it if they've had a beer. That's where the social work part has to come in.

"Part of my premise is that if you have people who are devoted to keeping the stuff clean while you're doing the event, you don't have to do it after they're exhausted at the end of the event. You have to identify potential hot spots for littering. You have to have properly marked bins, and you have them in an arrangement that's consistent everywhere you see them. And you have people standing there by the bins, making gentle suggestions to you that, 'You know, that paper plate is recyclable, and we're collecting compost here.'

"The thing about the zero-waste part is that it involves the collection of food waste, and then having a place to take it. Until the city of Madison builds its bio-digester, the amount of food waste that can be handled here in a large quantity is somewhat limited, because you have to make special arrangements. There are other places that accept it, but then you have to haul it, and you have to be careful about expanding the carbon footprint. Schlepping it more than 25 miles seems like a wash considering the benefits.

"You know, a lot of people out there are environmentalists. They don't have to be liberal about their politics. They're all about conservation and preserving the wild. They give money to organizations from soup to nuts, to the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace.

"But there are some people who don't want to just give money. There are people who are very passionate about saving things from going to the landfill. Their dream is that they want to do something, and they want to do something that has fairly immediate results. You go out there and you actually see what you've accomplished.

"To me, what it's about is making their dream come true. That's my dream. It's the world I want to live in. And I'm trying to convince people that it's the world they should expect to live in, too."

Abramson can be contacted at

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