An earthly love turns alum into author, teacher, recycler

No jokes about Rebecca Mattano’s job as the Solid Waste Supervisor of Waukesha County, please. She’s heard them all already, and besides, it’s not what you think.

Mattano is the person responsible for coordinating and overseeing the Waukesha County recycling program, which reaches 27 communities just to the west of Milwaukee County. It’s the perfect job for someone as passionate and protective of the environment as she.

“I want to make sure that seven generations from now, we still have clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and natural resources available,” Mattano said.

That passion was what led her to UWM. Mattano grew up in Oconomowoc and wanted to stay local for college. When she heard about UWM’s Conservation and Environmental Science major, she was hooked. She graduated in 2001 with a deep appreciation for her studies – especially the field work, which led her to work for the Nevada Civilian Conservation Corps after graduation.

“I ended up mapping over a million acres of wilderness area,” Mattano said. “I was getting paid to ride a four-wheeler. I slept outside on the ground in my snow pants many, many nights.”

Working in that role made Mattano realize the importance of environmental education, so she returned to Wisconsin for graduate school at UW-Stevens Point and earned a Master’s in Environmental Education. She put it to use teaching Environmental Science at Carroll University and later at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

She joined Waukesha County in 2012 and was promoted months later to her current position as the Solid Waste Supervisor.

Waukesha County Solid Waste Supervisor Rebecca Mattano educates children about the importance of recycling. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mattano.

Waukesha County Solid Waste Supervisor Rebecca Mattano educates children about the importance of recycling. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mattano.

“I have to explain it every time I introduce myself. I really would try to change my job title but then I wouldn’t have any opening line every time I went into a presentation,” Mattano joked.

She administers recycling contracts and operations for the Joint Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, which is operated under an intergovernmental agreement between the City of Milwaukee and Waukesha County. She aligns programming and operations with state recycling laws, and she also oversees the staff members who perform education and outreach to inform people about waste reduction and recycling.

There’s a lot to inform them about.

“I think that has always been the challenge, to reach out to the public so that they know what to put in their curbside bin and what not to,” Mattano said. “There is a new term out there called ‘wish-cycling.’ People really want to recycle, and they think because it’s metal or plastic they can just throw it in their bin and somebody else will take care of it. If you send it to us and it’s not recyclable, you may be putting the workers in danger or the equipment at risk, and we’re going to have to throw it away which just shifts the burden of cost.”

Now there’s an easy way to figure out how to “Recycle Right”. Mattano and her team worked with UWM’s App Brewery to create an app called Waukesha County Recycles that easily helps county residents find what can and can’t go in the recycling bin.

When communities work together, she added, the results are amazing. Last year, Waukesha County recycled 25,000 tons, a 34 percent increase over 2014, which resulted in a 13 percent reduction in landfill disposal.

Mattano’s dedication to the environment and teaching people about it carries over into her home life as well. Her oldest daughter is now 11, but when she was younger, Mattano wanted to find a fun way to teach her a love of the outdoors.

nature-discovery“I began to look for books to teach it. Unfortunately all I could find were fictional books depicting talking trees and animals. I wanted something real and tangible that she could walk outside and say, ‘that was in the book,’” Mattano said. “That developed into my first publication which was Nature Discovery in my Backyard. This book focused on my daughter exploring the backyard. I followed her around to see what she was interested in. She wanted to catch butterflies and pick up frogs and listen to the birds and lay in the grass and climb trees.”

For her next book, Go Green With Me, Mattano focused on easy, practical solutions that people can implement to help the environment – riding bikes, conserving water, starting a garden, and more. She designed presentations around the books and would regularly talk with young audiences about the natural world and the things they can do to preserve it.

Everyone pitching in a little bit can help, she said.

“On a local scale, what you are doing is contributing to the global solution,” Mattano added. “I have to look at it that way. I’m likely not going to solve the global crises by myself, but I’m a part of that solution.”

– Sarah Vickery