ByMitch Ratcliffe

Apr 26, 2018
Containerize Anything

It’s not every day that someone standing by a machine the size of a house asks what you are doing for Earth Day. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) annual convention is an exciting mashup of heavy equipment, a willingness to recover materials from discarded objects and enthusiasm for Earth Day. 

This industry is the backbone of the process that starts at your curbside recycling bin and with responsible businesses that recycle. We don’t typically think about this process, but it’s essential to improving humans’ negative impact on the environment.

All Facets of Recycling

The event, which took place in Las Vegas last week, hosted discussions about topics ranging from trends in recycling by material recovered, worker safety and regulatory issues to the economic consequences of China’s decision to stop importing certain materials. Recyclers talked about the generational changes facing this family-business-dominated industry. It also featured some of the biggest machines one can imagine. Conversations on the show floor often consisted of comments such as, “We don’t use luggers on the West Coast; we use luggers all over the East Coast.” 

A “lugger” is a truck, this one made by Benlee.

China’s decision to restrict imports of many categories of materials — including rigid plastics, paper waste and metals — has collided with the Trump administration’s tariff decisions related to aluminum and steel to upend the U.S. recycling industry and commodities prices. The combination creates enormous incentives to increase U.S. recycling investments, but it could quickly result in, as one attendee put it, “rail shipping all the waste to the Midwest and then we’ll just fill that to capacity.” 

Copper pellets recovered from electrical waste

Worth $117 billion in 2017, the industry supports 535,000 jobs in the United States. It remains one-third the size of the U.S. mining industry by revenue as of 2016 — the most recent year from which data is available and the year when mining was down almost 50 percent compared with 2014. Transitioning to recovered materials is still, after 50 years of intense recycling efforts in the U.S., a continuing project. 

Transforming the Economy

Strolling the aisles between massive cranes, giant shredders and separators — which use magnets and a lot of jostling of waste to pull out each material — it’s easy to think of old American industry. But recyclers are at the cutting edge of transforming the economy from a primarily extractive endeavor that damages the earth into a circular process that reuses metal, paper, plastic and other materials to reduce raw ore and petroleum extraction.

A Bunting Magnetics Company separator

With China backing away from a two-decade project to import recyclable raw waste to bolster its manufacturing needs, American ingenuity is needed. ISRI attendees are stepping up.

“I see a lot of people who were on the fence making the decision to invest in equipment,” said Kevin Canepa, director of sales at Vision Financial Group Leasing & Finance. “The tariffs have made a big impact, but people aren’t talking about that. It’s a good thing for the [U.S.] economy.”

Kevin Canepa of VFG Leasing & Finance

Canepa’s finance company focuses on smaller recycling companies, including new firms that cannot get the attention of large banks. He sees strong growth spurred by the opportunity to make more money on domestically recovered materials, which are rising in price because of the tariffs.

“We’re seeing a lot of mom-and-pop business coming into the market,” Canepa said. These new businesses are stepping into unserved niches and often specialize in categories of waste.

Sustainability as an Opportunity for Profit

The defining question for a recycler talking business at the ISRI Convention is this: “How many containers do you process each month?” These businesses deal in massive volumes, but many are seeking more-efficient access to recycled material from local sources. This has created new revenue opportunities for smaller businesses, the “mom-and-pop” firms that see the shift toward sustainability as a profit opportunity.

A cutaway view of a scrap magnet made by Walker Magnetics

Improved efficiency in getting recyclables from your curbside bins to the right recycling companies will determine the profitability of the scrap industry in the future. China’s decision to abandon waste imports will affect U.S. recycling for a decade and set the stage for growth and cleaner production if consumers insist that communities and companies invest in recycling. New approaches to waste collection and new types of jobs may emerge in the “gig economy” as the internet and recycling are combined. Earth911 will keep you apprised of these changes as they occur over the next five to 10 years.

The week-long event is the largest in recycling. and ISRI have collaborated for half a decade to raise consumer awareness of the economic impact of the recycling industry. 

Watch a video from ISRI 2018

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.