The state of the recycling industry today

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The recycling industry has long been recognized as one of the world’s first green industries, born out of the need to recover and conserve valuable resources. From the earliest of times, people recognized the intrinsic value of recycling and the benefits associated with using and reusing existing materials to create new products.

Today, the U.S. scrap recycling industry is a $100 billion industry that supplies 50 percent of the world’s raw material needs and remains dedicated to transforming materials to create new products and driving economies by making the old new again. Last year alone, the recycling industry transformed more than 130 million metric tons of obsolete materials from consumers, businesses, residential sources and manufacturers throughout the U.S. into specification grade commodities for purchase by industrial consumers.  Those commodities included: 67 million metric tons of iron and steel; 47.2 million metric tons of paper; more than 8 million metric tons of aluminum, copper, and other nonferrous metals; more than 5 million tons of electronics; more than 3.5 million tons of plastic scrap; and more than 122 million scrap tires. 

Recyclable materials are highly valuable and tradable products, produced according to globally recognized specifications for purchase by industrial consumers around the world – including steel mills, metal refiners, plastic manufacturers, foundries, and paper mills – to meet their raw material needs. Recycled materials are routinely used in place of virgin commodities since they are often less expensive, of comparable – if not better – quality, and save energy which are all important factors in the manufacturing process. 

The scrap recycling industry is an important economic engine and job creator, with widespread economic benefits. An independent study conducted last year by John Dunham and Associates shows that the scrap recycling industry directly employs more than 149,000 people in the United States, with an additional 323,000 Americans supported by the activities of the recycling industry. These are real people with real jobs, making an average of $77,000 in wages and benefits and generating more than $11 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues annually.

Recycling offers real solutions for balancing economic growth and environmental stewardship. By protecting the earth’s air, water, and land, recycling gives us a means to minimize our impact on the planet and directly contribute to our quality of life.

For example, using recycled rubber from scrap tires to construct roads has both significant safety and environmental benefits. Roads constructed with rubberized asphalt last longer, provide more traction, which is especially important during rainy and icy weather conditions, and are quieter, thus reducing the need for other sound absorbing or blocking structures such as walls and similar noise barriers.

Another key area of growth for the recycling industry is plastics recycling. Plastics are all around us, from the beverage container we drink out of, to the dashboard in our car, to the clothes on our back. Our modern society would be lost without the performance and utility that plastics provides. Plastics recycling is the fastest growing segment of the recycling industry, with more than 3.5 million tons of post-industrial and post-consumer plastics scrap recycled in the U.S. last year.

The difficult market conditions that have existed for recycling for the last several years have made this an extremely challenging time for many in the industry. It is important to understand that the health of the recycling industry is closely related to the health of the global economy and thus sensitive to the state of both domestic and overseas manufacturing, as well as fluctuations in currency markets, the flow of imports and, of course, volatility in commodity prices. It is no wonder then that the scrap market is cyclical in nature.

But as with all down cycles, this one is coming to an end, leaving recyclers in an even better position to benefit our economy and society in the months and years ahead. 

Robin Wiener is president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). ISRI is the Voice of the Recycling Industry, representing 1,300 private, for-profit recycling companies in the U.S. and across the globe that process, broker, and consume the entire range of recyclable commodities, including metals, paper, plastics, glass, textiles, rubber, and electronics. Our members are located in every state in the country and range in size from small family-owned businesses to large multinational corporations. ISRI promotes safe, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible recycling through networking, advocacy, and education.

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