The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) briefed the Congressional Recycling Caucus Sept. 24 on the state of recycling in the U.S. Hosted by Recycling Caucus Co-Chairs Rep. Frank Pallone, who also serves as House Energy and Commerce chairman, and Rep. John Shimkus, the event focused on the economic and environmental benefits of recycling while addressing how global environmental and trade policies are changing the industry’s landscape.
In addition to ISRI, the event brought together other key stakeholders, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DC Public Works, the Southeast Recycling Development Council, The Recycling Partnership and the Paper Recycling Coalition.
“Recycling in the United States is an important economic engine and job creator,” ISRI President Robin Wiener told the caucus. “The recycling industry directly employs more than 164,000 Americans in jobs averaging $73,000 in wages and benefits annually while generating $110 billion in economic activity and $13 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.
“These numbers tell the story of a strong U.S. recycling industry, but not one without challenges in key segments of the industry. To understand those challenges, it is important to first understand what makes for successful recycling,” she continued.
Wiener said recycling requires market demand to be successful, noting that “collection without consumption is not recycling.
Additionally, “recycling requires minimal contamination” to be successful, “as recyclables are products sold by grade, with corresponding value and marketability directly related to quality,” she said.
Wiener reminded the caucus that U.S. recycling involves “far more than what is placed in the blue bin, or cart, at the end of the driveway,” with residential recycling programs representing less than 30 percent of the volume of material recycled in the U.S. “The other 70 percent comes from the recycling of commercial and industrial materials that tends to be cleaner and therefore can be processed to higher grades with greater marketability.
“The recycling infrastructure in the U.S. touches almost every part of our economy—from retail stores, office complexes, residential neighborhoods and schools to factories, construction and demolition sites and even military bases,” she continued. “And the vast majority of the recycled material that flows through the infrastructure does so without any problems and is transformed by recyclers into clean, high-quality, commodity-grade product.”
Wiener explained that while the residential recycling stream is subject to the same demand drivers, “it is saddled with an ever-changing and heterogeneous mix of materials on the supply side, and that material flows into the stream whether there is a market for it or not. This sets the residential recycling infrastructure apart from commercial and industrial recycling in the U.S., and that is why it demands a unique approach.”
She called for all stakeholders “to work together to develop a common understanding of the weaknesses affecting the residential stream, and then work together to develop the menu of solutions that need to be put in place.”
Wiener acknowledged the work of the U.S. EPA, saying, its "America Recycles Stakeholder Dialogue has worked to bring us all together, and it is the reason why ISRI is so heavily invested in it. Successful recycling requires a focus on education, quality, demand growth, and market access; and we are pleased to be working with EPA on all these issues.”
She also acknowledged the work that the Department of Energy (DOE) is doing to support innovation in recycling. “ISRI is proud to be a member of the DOE’s REMADE Institute, a multiyear, $50 million effort initiated two years ago to drive advanced manufacturing within the U.S.,” Wiener said. “This effort will provide new opportunities for the use of recyclable materials in manufacturing and also a greater focus on Design for Recycling.
“It may surprise people to know that recycling plays such an important role in advanced manufacturing, but the reason that DOE is doing this is in part because they recognize the value not only of recycling but of recyclables, which goes to the myth I want to break this afternoon, and that is that recyclables are wastes, and that the only reason why they are recycled is to avoid the alternative of throwing them away. The truth is that these materials are not waste.”
Wiener explained that this “scrap” or “secondary materials” are “valuable commodities sold and sought after in the global marketplace by industrial consumers—including steel mills, metal refiners, foundries, paper mills, plastic formulators and others—for the manufacture of new consumer and industrial products. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) estimates that more than 40 percent of manufacturers’ raw material needs around the world are met through the recycling of obsolete, off-spec and end-of-life products and materials.
“Worldwide, more than 800 million metric tons of recyclable materials are consumed each year by manufacturers. And just like coffee, crude oil and other commodities, the movement of recyclables is driven by the demand needs of consumers in the U.S. and around the globe with the U.S. playing a major role in this global market, selling $20 billion worth of scrap to manufacturers in more than 150 different countries,” she noted.