Circular File

Work, Not Waste

That recycling creates more jobs than disposal is a no-brainer. After all, recycling gives materials a chance for a new life while disposal is final. How many jobs recycling creates, and the impact of those jobs on our economy, however, are the subjects of many reports and endless debate.

“More Jobs: Less Pollution” is the latest economic study of the impact of recycling. Funded by a coalition of labor and environmental groups, the report predicts that America will see a multiplicity of benefits if we can divert 75 percent of municipal solid waste and construction and demolition material from disposal into recycling, composting and reuse. It claims that if we can achieve this goal by 2030, we will have 2.3 million new jobs, lower greenhouse gas emissions and a healthier country.

Economic impact studies usually have two goals. One is to highlight the industry’s importance and the second is to advocate for favorable policies. These studies tend to be very similar regardless of what they are assessing. They stress the number of jobs in the industry and its share of jobs in those industries that supply it with raw materials, manufacturing equipment and other necessary services.

Sometimes these studies highlight other aspects. Green industries cite the value of lowered pollution. Health-related industries cite the benefits of a healthier population. Some studies stress the amount of taxes the industry pays and the government’s dependence on those taxes.

The credible reports are highly transparent about their assumptions. The best ones don’t just spell out these assumptions, they note the assumptions in the reports they have relied on in making their economic impact estimates. They also provide specific details about the policies they are promoting or opposing and how they will have a positive or negative impact.

This latest report is upfront about its assumptions. It also notes many of the assumptions in the studies it relied on, such as EPA’s estimates of the size of the waste stream. Nine policies are cited as methods to achieve 75 percent waste diversion. These include a national container deposit law, mandatory recycling and composting laws, disposal bans, and pay as you throw programs at the local level. Unfortunately, the study does not attempt to cite the contribution of any of these policies toward achieving the 75 percent diversion rate, although it provides examples of some of them in action.

Yet, the most important question is where will the 2.3 million new jobs be located? On almost the same day the study was released, SP Paper, a company that operates two newsprint mills in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. Nor are they the first paper company to file for bankruptcy in the last five years. The tragedy of American recycling is that while the collection and processing jobs will stay here, the jobs related to manufacturing products from recyclables are moving overseas.

Unfortunately this study gives no insight into how we can reverse this trend. Instead, the authors assume the jobs will stay here because we will adopt an industrial policy stressing recycled content in products and that somehow the cost of overseas transportation will increase.

Clearly recycling is more beneficial than disposal. But until we start rebuilding America’s manufacturing base, we are just shipping jobs overseas and failing to complete the recycling circle.

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