2016 Recycling Industry Year in Review

Just how is the recycling industry doing? The best place to go for that information is to the source itself: the people actually doing the recycling. During a recent U.S. Senate briefing, the president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Robin Wiener, shared her thoughts on the state of the industry on behalf of the approximately 1,300 member companies that process, broker and consume scrap commodities. From the 2016 State of Recycling address, there were themes that allow us to gain deeper insights into the recycling industry beyond the curbside bid or recycling dumpsters that most of us interface with. Here’s what we learned:

Times Are Tough, But Recycling Is Still Huge

Wiener opened by speaking of the importance of the recycling industry with some compelling information. “Despite difficult market conditions that our industry finds itself faced with due to slow economic growth at home and abroad, recycling remains a vibrant activity and the first link in the global manufacturing supply chain, supplying nearly 50 percent of the world’s raw materials needs while providing unmistakable economic and environmental benefits in our local communities, across the country, and throughout the globe,” she said.

Recycling Markets Are Tied to Global Markets

Although this might not seem obvious from a consumer’s perspective, recycling involves global commodities that are often processed and then sold abroad, primarily in China. This is where we can apply our knowledge of supply and demand. When manufacturing demand for commodities is low, so is the price of recycled materials (and likely the virgin material as well). Unfortunately for the recycling industry, the price they get for their materials is lower, while most of their costs are relatively fixed. Wiener even mentioned that when Alan Greenspan was chairman of the Federal Reserve, he monitored scrap prices as an indicator of the direction of the economy.

The Recycling Industry Employs Hundreds of Thousands

Because of the complexity of the recycling process, the industry employs a lot of workers. “An independent study conducted last year by John Dunham and Associates shows that the scrap recycling industry directly employs more than 149,000 people in the United States, with an additional 323,000 Americans supported by the activities of the recycling industry,” Wiener said. “These are real people with real jobs, making an average of $77,000 in wages and benefits and generating more than $11 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues annually.”

Tough Economic Conditions Spur Ingenuity

Making an industry that requires the transportation, sorting and processing of so many materials profitable is tricky, especially as commodity prices fluctuate. “In fact, our industry’s response to today’s challenging market conditions has resulted in additional improvements to our operational efficiency and quality, along with a renewed commitment to safety,” Wiener said.

Improving operational efficiency and further automating the process of recycling seems like the only way to advance. Smarter facilities can help improve the quality of the recycled materials and speed up the sorting and processing.

The Next Generation of Recyclers Is Learning Now

With a U.S. recycling rate of 34.6 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is certainly room for improvement. The recycling industry has focused a lot on making recycling easier for us in recent years, but education is clearly an important piece of the equation, according to Wiener.

“I am … very proud that ISRI is playing an active role through the distribution of a K through 12 school curriculum, designed to connect the science of recycling to the act of recycling,” she said. “Personally, I can’t think of a better way to influence the next generation of lawmakers, journalists, manufacturers and global citizens than through a conversation starting at the schools.”

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.