GRRN Green Paper #3
Create Jobs From Discards
Last modified: March 22, 2019

During the last past 20 years, the combined efforts of citizens, government officials, and business people have helped form the basis for an environmentally sound era of economic growth.  A prime example of that effort is recycling.  The general public has embraced recycling for two reasons.  First, it saves energy and other resources, and second, it saves materials by taking discarded resources from the waste stream and turning them into valuable products.

But that's not all recycling provides.  It can help revitalize existing industries and attract new industries to urban and rural communities.  And it can preserve existing jobs and create new jobs.  Put simply, recycling is an economic development tool as well as an environmental tool.  Reuse, recycling, and waste reduction offer one of the most direct development opportunities for communities.  Discarded materials are a local resource that can contribute to local revenue, job creation, business expansion, and the local economic base.

Just sorting and processing recyclables sustains 5 to 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.

However, it is making new products from the old that offers the largest economic pay-off.  New recycling-based manufacturers employ even more people and at higher wages.  Recycling-based paper mills and plastic product manufacturers, for instance, employ 60 times more workers than do landfills.  Manufacturing with locally collected discards also adds value by producing finished goods -- a drastic change from the current paradigm in which our communities export raw materials and import finished products.  While value is added to discarded materials as a result of cleaning, sorting, and baling, significantly more value is added as a result of end-use manufacturing.  For example, old newspapers may sell for $20 per ton, but new newsprint sells for $600 per ton.  Each step a community takes locally means more jobs, more business expenditures on supplies and services, and more money circulating in the local economy through spending and tax payments.

Recycling-based manufacturing reduces dependence on distant markets for recyclables and can provide greater market stability.

Local jobs are created, local manufacturers have access to less expensive raw materials, and reduced landfill space saves residents and local governments dollars that can now be spent elsewhere in the local economy.  Local ownership ensures that business assets remain in the region, and spin-off purchasing enhances the stability of the local retail business environment and contributes to the local tax base.  In addition, using locally collected discarded materials for reuse or to manufacture new products can contribute to the local economy and improve regional efficiency and self-reliance by producing goods that local business would otherwise purchase from out-of-state sources.  Moreover, recycling-based manufacturing can be done on a much smaller scale than its virgin materials counterparts.  For example, steel mills based on scrap can be as small as 10% the size of virgin-iron-ore-based mills and still compete effectively.  This means that manufacturing cannot only find its raw materials locally, it can also sell locally and regionally.  We can begin to miniaturize the economy.

Product reuse (another form of recycling) offers communities similar economic benefits.

Each year Americans spend billions of dollars on diapers, new tires, and new plastic, glass, and metal soft drink containers.  Some of this money remains in communities where the products are purchased, yet a majority flees the community for the home of the corporations.  Two companies dominate the soft drink market.  Similarly two other companies together produce 87% of the diapers sold.  And four tire manufacturing companies own 77% of the new tire manufacturing industry.  On the other hand, reusable alternatives to these products -- refillable bottle washing, cloth diaper services, tire retreading -- create wealth and jobs for local communities.  Companies offering reusable products tend to be small and locally owned and operated, providing local jobs and increased capital retention to communities around the country.  Small businesses are one of the most important facets of any stable economy.  Locally owned firms tend to be more stable.  They purchase more of their goods and services from the local area, and they tend to be more civic-minded.

As examples, there are 1,700 tire retreading operations in North America.  About 95% of these are owned and operated by small businesses.  Reusable diaper services employ 10,000 to 12,500 people.  Each business employs 5 to 50 workers.  A complete switch to diaper services would generate 72,000 jobs nationwide in this service industry alone.  Refillable bottling operations are also often small-scale.  Stewart's in Saratoga Springs, New York, sells its own brand of soft drink, orange juice, and milk, all in refillable containers.  The company employs 170 people full-time in its bottle plant and dairy.

According to figures released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), on a per-ton basis, pallet repair operations sustain 14 times more jobs than disposal facilities, electronics reuse enterprises sustain 68 times more jobs, multi-material reuse facilities sustain 38 times more jobs, and textile reuse businesses create 37 times the number of jobs as disposal facilities.  Thus, the potential to create new jobs through reuse is enormous.  ILSR estimates, for instance, that 110,000 new jobs could be created by reusing half of the 25.5 million tons of household durables now landfilled and incinerated.  Another 25,000 jobs could be created if just half the textiles thrown away in 1994 are recovered.

"Closing the loop locally" -- by recovering more materials and developing local remanufacturing, reuse, and composting businesses as markets for these materials -- is the key to maximizing recycling-based economic development.

In order to close the loop locally, we must ensure efficient, cost-effective recovery of materials from our waste stream.  Recycling-based manufacturers, for instance, need guaranteed supplies of high-quality recyclable materials.  The metropolitan areas that have attracted new recycling enterprises have done so because of their cities' aggressive recycling programs.  Consider Philadelphia.  Since implementing curbside recycling, between 1986 and 1993, Philadelphia attracted 46 new recycling-related businesses interested in locating in and around the city (with a potential to create 2,000 new jobs).  Between 1993 and first of half of 1994 (latest figures available), eight new businesses were established that created 81 jobs, and another 7 businesses, slated to create 284 jobs, were considering locating or expanding in and around the city.

In addition to building a collection and processing infrastructure for discarded materials, creating jobs not waste means actively fostering the growth of local remanufacturing, reuse, and composting businesses.  Implementation of the following strategies will encourage such development.

1. Actively work to prevent waste and encourage reuse.
  • Charge by volume or weight for waste collection.
  • Substitute reusable products for disposable ones.
  • Mount a public education campaign on waste prevention.
  • Encourage commodity reuse through repair (e.g., appliance repair), and products such as cloth diapers and refillable containers.

2. Maximize the amount of recyclable and compostable material collected for recovery.
  • Where trash is collected at curbside, implement weekly, year-round curbside collection of a wide range of recyclable and compostable materials (including food waste).
  • Make participation mandatory.
  • Provide households with recycling containers and backyard composters, and educate citizens to recycle and compost.
  • Establish a network of recycling drop-off sites.
  • Require garbage haulers, businesses, and institutions to recycle and compost.
  • Provide adequate processing capacity for residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial materials.
  • Adopt tipping fee surcharges on waste disposal to fund recycling and discourage wasting.
  • Avoid waste incineration, which promotes a throw-away society and competes with recycling for materials and funds.

3. Create a local and regional recycling-based manufacturing infrastructure.
  • Buy recycled-content products.
  • Mandate minimum recycled-content standards for certain products such as newsprint, glass bottles, insulation, trash bags, and phone books.
  • Require recycled materials in road construction projects.
  • Educate local manufacturers on the advantages of using recycled materials.
  • Enlist economic development agencies in recycling planning.
  • Actively encourage recycling industries to locate in your community, especially those that represent high-value end uses and "closed loop" recycling (such as making old newspapers into new newsprint).
  • Offer financing incentives to recycling-based enterprises, particularly those that are community based.
  • Work with industrial park businesses, developers, and operators to include community-based organizations as partners in joint ventures.


This draft was written by Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance with input from other members of the GRRN Steering Committee and a number of GrassRoots Recycling Network GREENYES listserve participants.

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