The nation’s recycling leaders are descending on Capitol Hill this week with a clear message for U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration: the country’s industrial, commercial and residential recycling infrastructure is working, both from an environmental and economic standpoint, but requires careful policy fixes in order to provide even stronger benefits.
The recycling industry has tremendous economic reach, touching nearly every congressional district across the country. In 2018, the industry powered more than 530,000 jobs across the country, $33.4 billion in wages and contributed nearly $110 billion in economic output annually to the United States.
America’s recycling infrastructure processed 138 million metric tons of material last year into commodities. Major industries in the manufacturing sector — including steel mills, foundries, paper mills, consumer-packaged goods producers and plastics formulators — rely on these recycled materials as key feedstock.
The country’s environmental well-being and the recycling industry are fundamentally entwined. Recycling is diverting hundreds of millions of pounds of materials from landfills and avoiding millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Two out of every three pounds of steel made in the United States is manufactured using steel scrap, generating 58 percent less carbon dioxide and using 60 percent less energy than making steel from ore. What’s more, 80 percent of all U.S. paper mills are using recovered fiber, saving energy, reducing water pollution and air emissions dramatically.
Most people experience recycling at the residential level, so it’s no surprise they don’t realize that most recycled materials — 70 percent — comes from industrial or commercial sources. Only 30 percent comes from local residential sources.
The convocation of industry leaders takes place against the backdrop of recent news stories about the need to boost recycling to lessen environmental stresses. This is an admirable and even essential goal that will require policy fixes at the national level and local levels.
First of those fixes is support from lawmakers and the Trump administration for international trade agreements that provide access to markets for recycled commodities around the globe. Specifically, the industry leaders are pressing this week for approval of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement — 134,000 American recycling jobs are supported by exports to our closest neighbors.
Second is ensuring federal policy that recognizes recyclable materials as valuable commodities needed for manufacturers here and abroad — and not as solid waste. Whether called “scrap,” “recyclable materials” or “secondary materials,” they are commodities sold in the global marketplace as a raw material in lieu of virgin materials for manufacturing. They are relied upon by manufacturers around the world as a competitive, environmentally preferable and energy efficient material.
At the local level, encouraging more recycling will require educating people about what is and is not recyclable. Confusion has led to problems with both the quality and quantity of recycled goods needed for manufacturing. In some communities, upwards of 25 percent of the potentially recyclable materials placed in residential bins are too contaminated to go anywhere but a landfill. This is why the recycling industry will be pressing lawmakers this week to fund public awareness and education efforts, and to support an effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to address the main challenges facing residential recycling.
To help spur greater market demand for recyclables domestically, recyclers will also be asking legislators that infrastructure development projects employ products that use recycled and recyclable materials wherever economically and technologically possible, including use of rubberized asphalt in road construction, plastic in guard rails and the use of rebar from ferrous scrap.
The recycling industry is embarked on an important mission to join with localities and industries to help repair the world by contributing to a sustainable environment. Certainly, more materials can and should be recycled — but that will require the right policies.