This article was first published in The Viking News, February 11, 2004 (Volume 73, No. 2), a bi-weekly publication of the State University of New York, Westchester Community College.
By Taffy Lee Williams
The recycling industry is fast becoming a major contributor to the US manufacturing sector. Throughout America over 56,000 recycling facilities, both private and public, have sprung up, creating more than 1.1 million jobs. In fact, the industry compares with automobile manufacturing and mining industries and has surpassed waste management as well.
A recent study, the US Recycling Economic Information (REI) study has revealed how important the recycling industry has become. For the first time, legislators at every level can see the financial significance of recycling, especially in light of our ailing economy and the 3.1 million US jobs lost during the administration of G. W. Bush.
The recycling industry is comprised of a system of many integrated facets and activities that includes public and private sector curbside pickup programs, actual processing of recyclable items and materials, transfer of reprocessed raw materials to manufacturers and ultimately the construction of new products.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1999, 50.8 million tons of materials were recycled or composted, a 50% increase in just 9 years. The growing industry is even more attractive as it saves natural resources and reduces pollution from virtually every processing stage. A significant energy savings is maintained by avoiding a need to locate, excavate or mine raw materials. For example, an aluminum can has already been mined; the material is on hand and available; further extraction is unnecessary. Environmentally destructive mining practices are reduced. 95% of the energy needed to extract and process a new can is saved. Besides the energy savings, greenhouse gas emissions from the notorious pollutants carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and even chlorofluorocarbons are minimized as fossil fuel burning during manufacturing is reduced. Recycling achieves a significant reduction of landfill methane and incinerator emissions which threaten public health. Clear cutting is slowed and precious forests slated for destruction may be spared as recycled paper products become available and demand for non-"virgin" paper products increases. Recycling oil-based plastic containers may even decrease dependence on foreign oil.
Although still plagued by the deadliest of obstacles, ambivalence and poor public participation, recycling is a strong and growing industry. Challenges include changing the habits of those grown up in a "throw away" society where many attractive and useful products are made for one time use only. During major construction and demolition activities an enormous amount of valuable waste and debris is simply discarded. In addition, most consumer outlets still feature more products made of newly harvested or extracted materials than recycled.
With the changing of attitudes progress will be made as the recycling/reuse industry promises to emerge as a powerful and essential part of our US economy and job market. Recycling directly supports 26 different establishments from transportation and thrift shops to recycled paper manufacturers and all the professionals that work in between. Recycling employees contribute to local economies as they spend money and municipalities benefit from the taxes paid by facilities and their employees. The US recycling industry employs an enviable 1.1 million employees with a $37 billion annual payroll and $236 billion in annual revenues. Supporting positions, such as accountants and office suppliers, account for an additional 1.4 million US jobs with an additional payroll of $52 billion and $173 billion in receipts. What's more, according to the National Recycling Coalition (http://www.nrc-recycle.org/) the average wage for a recycling employee is $36,000 per year, $3,000 higher than the national average.
Unlike many manufacturing industries that have "gone south" or relocated to low wage non-unionized developing countries with few or no environmental standards to observe, recycling industry jobs are home based and cannot be shipped overseas. All this points to job security in a home-based local industry that cannot be exported to another country to maximize industry or corporate profit.
Lastly, perhaps the greatest incentive to recycle is that like most of the US, recycling is now the law in New York State. Most Americans don't need reminding: the EPA easily boasts that more people recycle today than vote. It's not likely that the recycling industry will go away any time soon.
The economics are simple. The more that is recycled, the more jobs are created. Participating in local recycling programs encourages both public and private sector investment in recycling manufacturing leading to economic growth, more jobs, preservation of mining lands and forests, decreased energy expenditure, higher municipal revenues and a cleaner healthier environment for the public well-being.
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