Seven years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessed recycling's impact on our nation's economy. The numbers were impressive. Recycling companies employed more than 1 million people, paid them more than $37 billion a year and had annual revenues equal to the auto and truck manufacturing industries.
EPA's report was the national version of a study that was originally conducted by the Northeast Recycling Council, a 10-state coalition. Earlier this year, the council updated its original study, this time assessing recycling's economic impact in five of its member states (Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania). The report can be found at www.nerc.org/documents/recycling_economic_information_study_update_2009.pdf.
The update uses a different methodology to estimate the size of the “recycling” industry. In the first study, recycling companies were defined as both the “supply side” (collectors and processors) and the “demand side” (manufacturers who bought recyclables and used them as part of their raw material recipe). Some of us objected, arguing that calling end markets part of the recycling industry unintentionally inflated the size of our industry. After all, since many of the same manufacturers also use raw materials that were mined out of the ground, were they also part of the mining industry?
This time around, the recycling industry is defined as companies that collect and process recyclables to make them available for use in a new industrial process. End users are defined as “recycling reliant” industries. As did the first study, the report includes a separate reuse and remanufacturing sector.
Even in this alternate analysis, the recycling industry provides significant economic impact in these five states, employing almost 32,000 people with revenues of almost $12 million. The recycling reliant industry is even larger, with 55,000 workers and more than $21 million in revenue. Reusers and remanufacturers add more than 17,000 employees and $2 million in annual revenues. Think about this for a minute. In just five states, more than 104,000 people have their jobs because of recycling. Some of them are employed directly by the recycling industry and even more by companies that use recyclables as a raw material.
I realize that some people may be disappointed because the new methodology shows a smaller recycling industry than did the previous study. If so, they are missing the big picture. As the numbers note, recycling is absolutely essential to industry. Recyclables have been a part of manufacturing since the first product was made. While the percentage of raw materials supplied by recyclables has varied over the last century, recyclables remain an important element in America's industrial base.
If American manufacturers lacked the ability to use recyclables as raw materials, they would be producing fewer goods at a higher raw material and energy cost. Just think of all the products that use recycled material as a raw material. The list is endless and includes, just for starters, aluminum cans, steel cans, glass bottles, paperboard boxes, corrugated containers, newspapers, paper towels, plastic lumber, plastic fiber, plastic containers, construction materials, roadbed, cars, and on and on.
This is not to say the picture is perfect. When we ship our recyclables to overseas mills, we take jobs away from Americans. In many of those countries, energy utility smokestacks produce emissions that would give an EPA inspector a heart attack.
But look on the bright side. Even in a recession, recycling is healthier than auto and truck manufacturing.
Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at email@example.com.