Recent media reports have painted a confusing and misinformed picture of recycling, calling it wasteful, ineffective and costly. Unfortunately, these articles completely overlook the positive economic impact of this activity on the United States economy. The reality is that recycling in the United States is a vibrant activity and a key driver in domestic and global manufacturing, supplying more than 130 million tons annually of scrap metals, paper, electronics, plastics, rubber, glass and textiles for manufacture into new products. U.S. manufacturers prize recycled scrap as a raw material due in part to the cost and energy savings associated with using it.
Overall, the business of recycling represents nearly $106 billion in annual economic activity and is responsible for more than 471,000 direct and indirect U.S. jobs, generating more than $4.3 billion in state and local revenues annually, and another $6.76 billion in federal taxes. This includes an economic impact of more than $1.1 billion in Maryland alone and nearly 5,400 jobs. In Baltimore, this equates to 825 direct and indirect jobs generating more than $160 million in economic activity. Beyond recycling this includes jobs in transportation, manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing, mining, government and more.
To see how recycled materials play a role in daily lives, one just has look at the numbers:
•U.S. steelmakers rely on iron and steel scrap, which includes such items as old automobiles, bridges and machinery, to make roughly two-thirds of the steel produced;
Recycled copper accounts for nearly half of total U.S. copper consumption;
One-third of the U.S. aluminum supply comes from recycled materials;
And more than half of the U.S. paper industry's needs are met through the use of recycled paper.
While approximately 70 percent of scrap recyclables processed in the U.S. are consumed here, global demand for scrap also provides a useful outlet for our nation's excess scrap supply. U.S. export sales of recycled scrap, including that shipped from the Port of Baltimore, significantly benefit the U.S. trade balance. Since 2004, net exports of U.S. scrap have made a positive contribution to our balance of trade amounting to more than $185 billion.
The environmental impact of recycling cannot be ignored. The reality is that recycling is an important part of our national infrastructure, providing an effective and currently irreplaceable means of reducing landfill space and transforming end-of-life products and materials into valuable materials that are used to manufacture new products. Independent studies show that recycling offers environmental benefits over landfilling and incineration. Among the most important benefits are the reduction in energy used to manufacture with recycled feedstock (compared to using virgin material) and the very dramatic reduction in air pollutants, including greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of reduced energy usage. Looking at a few examples by recycled commodity, energy savings realized are up to 92 percent for aluminum, 87 percent for plastic, 68 percent for paper, and 56 percent for steel.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found in 2013 that municipal recycling and composting, which makes up nearly half of the total recycling activity in the U.S., reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 186 million tons, comparable to annual emissions from more than 39 million passenger cars.
Despite all of this positive news, there are still some areas of the recycling industry that are experiencing challenges as a result of a changing business model and increasing quality concerns. Decreased commodity prices combined with efforts to make recycling more convenient for consumers have affected both the economics and the processing requirements for recyclables. However, it is important to recognize that the public and private entities involved with municipal recycling are taking proactive steps to address program funding and material quality to offset lower commodity prices.
Recycling has become a highly technical industry, new markets are being developed, advanced processes are being created to allow more items to enter the recycling stream, and the public is more engaged and educated on what can and cannot be recycled. Through a national public service announcement campaign and partnership programs — including a pilot program in Baltimore — the recycling industry is helping to train teachers on how to teach the science, technology, math and engineering behind recycling. This will help ensure future generations know and understand the value of recycling, as well as potentially pursue careers in the field. Through recycling the health of the planet will remain strong.
Robin K. Wiener is president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (Twitter: @ISRI); Jennifer M. Jehn is president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful (@KABtweet); and David Biderman is executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America (@SWANA).