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Greenville Business Magazine

The more we recycle, the more jobs we create

Feb 01, 2019 11:24AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Mary McClellan

Eventually, we’ll all be replaced by robots, but for now we need jobs and the jobs still need us. Recycling is an industry that creates 10 times the jobs per ton than its alternative: landfilling. 

Of course, not everything is recoverable or recyclable (so no hoses or Styrofoam in your recycling bin, please!) but the things that can be captured by drop-off, curbside, and other collection programs for recyclables live a life beyond the recycling bin. 

Sure, landfills and incinerators create jobs and are the safest and most economical ways to manage our discards. But putting recyclables in the landfill is a waste of all the money, energy, water, labor, and natural resources it took to create the thing. And it’s a waste of jobs. Landfills are the end of a package; do not pass go, do not collect $200. 

When a bottle keeps going on the path of recycling, it might end up at one of the 25 plastic recycling facilities in South Carolina, where it is chopped up, washed, melted, and remanufactured into carpet, fabric, or new containers. 

It only takes six weeks for an aluminum can to travel from your bin into a new can on the shelf at the grocery store, via Nucor or JW Aluminum. Metals and glass containers can be recycled a number of times into new containers or other valuable products. Paper is shredded, pulped (think paper soup), and reformed into new paper, tissue, and cardboard by Pratt Industries, and Sonoco Recycling. There are other types of recycling, like food waste composting, construction and demolition recycling, and textile recycling. 

The crazy thing is that people make money doing this. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries reports that the value of the recycling industry nationwide in 2017 was $117 billion. In South Carolina alone, the recycling business has an economic impact of more than $13 billion, thanks to the work of 500 recycling companies and the 2,477 jobs attributed to the industry.  In North Carolina, the impact is closer to $17 billion and 17,000 jobs.

The beginning to the beginning of the recycling process (because it’s a loop, get it?) creates economic ripples that burying our waste just cannot offer. From machinery and equipment that is used in material recovery facilities to recycling bins and collection equipment manufacturing to reprocessors and brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi, Unifi, and Leigh Fibers which demand recycled materials, the recycling industry feeds itself. 

It is also innovating with robotic sorting and artificial intelligence to increase material recovery, safety, and efficiency. So yeah, we’re definitely being replaced by robots, but we’re OK with it. And while this editorial is about jobs, we can’t neglect the fact that recycling is good for the environment. It saves energy and water, and prevents pollution by reducing the need to extract as many natural resources.  

Recycling is a truly unique business that doesn’t rely on you to spend your money on products nor try to convince you to pick something from a store shelf. It relies on you to take an action with that product after you don’t want it anymore. 

It requires a small amount of effort to make a choice to recycle, yet we’re not even capturing 50 percent of what we could be from homes, businesses, and public places. Think of the potential: households could recycle up to 1,000 pounds of containers, paper, and packaging materials per year, but most don’t breach 400 pounds. By that logic, we could double recycling jobs if we captured all the material that’s out there. 

There’s really no good reason to throw away a can, or a bottle, or a box. So don’t throw your bottles away at the gas station; wait until you can get to a bin. Bring some extra bags on your vacation, and bring your recyclables to a drop-off center on your way out of town. Petition the office to get recycling service at work. There are lots of small simple things you can do that add up. In fact, if every household in the Carolinas recycled two more bottles per week, that could create 300 more jobs.

Recycling needs you to go all in, to see its value to the planet and the economy. We can only create more jobs if we do our job and recycle. 

Mary McClellan is the executive director of the Carolina Recycling Association. Mary has served the recycling industry for 17 years in the university, local government, and private sectors, and now leads one the most successful state recycling associations in the nation.

29th Annual Carolina Recycling Association Conference and Trade Show 
March 18-21

The Carolina Recycling Association (CRA) will be hosting the 29th Annual Carolina Recycling Association Conference and Trade Show from March 18-21 at the Charleston Convention Center. The largest recycling conference in the Southeast with more than 500 attendees annually and more than 90 exhibitors, CRA brings businesses (small to international), local governments, colleges and universities, nonprofits, and more together to learn, network, and inspire each other.
This year, CRA will present four workshops, two tours, and 13 educational breakout sessions covering topics including industrial and commercial recycling and composting, contract negotiation “bootcamp,” reducing contamination in recycling programs, and more. The event will feature leaders in the field during its two general sessions, including Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics; Mike Pope, president of Sonoco Recycling; and Scott Mouw, technical assistance director for The Recycling Partnership. The conference will wrap up with its first-ever hot-topic debate.
More information about the event, as well as registration, can be found on CRA’s conference website: A schedule of events can be found under the “Program” section.