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State of the Recycling Industry Today

July 2, 2020
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About the Recycling Industry

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.

In a 2019 study published in the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc (ISRI), over 65% of material recycled in the United States remained in the United States, allowing manufacturers to use it to create new products. 

As of 2019, 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.  

As of 2018, those commodities included: over 72 million metric tons of iron and steel; over 47 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 115 million scrap tires.

 

Why Recycling Matters

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 in 2019 by John Dunham and Associates shows that the scrap recycling industry directly employs 164,154 people in the United States, “with an additional 367,356 jobs in the U.S. economy were indirectly supported by the industry, for a total of 531,510 jobs; these numbers include workers who purchase, process and broker scrap metal.”

According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the scrap recycling industry “generates nearly $110 billion in economic benefits each year here in the United States. The scrap industry and its employees pay $7.96 billion in federal taxes each year. The industry also generates nearly $5 billion in state and local revenue each year, stimulating local economies.”

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.

 

The Recycling Market Today

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 provide. Plastics recycling is the fastest-growing segment of the recycling industry; as of 2019, the U.S. plastics recycling industry had an economic impact of $6 billion. 

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.

By Robin Wiener, she 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.