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The Economics of Recycling in the Southeast: Understanding the Whole Picture

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Click here to view a printable version of the Economics of Recyling in the Southeast: Understanding the Whole Picture (PDF) (11 pp, 524K, About PDF) fact sheet.

More Links and Resources

Economics of Recycling in the Southeast: Understanding the Whole Picture (11 pp, 524K, About PDF) fact sheet

Economics and Recycling Links and Resources

Click below for links to climate change and community resources:

Source Reduction and Recycling: A Role in Preventing Global Climate Change

Recycling: A Component of Strong Community Development

What if your state had an additional $69 million in tax revenue? What if you could add $6.5 billion to your state's economy? What if you had 37,440 more jobs? What would you do to get this extra cash?

The recycling industry in South Carolina has grown from 26,537 employees in 1995, to a total of 37,440 employed in 2005 with $6.5 billion in economic impact. This contributied $69 million in state tax revenue and is estimated to grow by 12% in the next five years!

You have heard it all before: recycling reduces energy consumption, decreases pollution, and preserves natural resources. But have you considered how recyclable materials provide valuable resources for your community's manufacturers and yield significant economic benefits to your state? Sure, recycling is about the environment and it can have significant indirect benefits, such as strengthening communities and reducing GHG emissions, but recycling is also about economic development, creating jobs, and building competitive industries. The opportunities are literally in our hands.

"That recycling is beneficial for the environment is probably an uncontested proposition. What is becoming increasingly more obvious is that recycling contributes to the economic health of a state's economy."

Frank Hefner & Calvin Blackwell
Department of Economics and Finance, College of Charleston
The Economic Impact of the Recycling Industry in South Carolina

Community leaders are beginning to see recycling not just as a public works operation, but as a sound investment in a town, a state, and a region.  Elected officials and city employees alike now recognize that recycling is:

Economics and Recycling Topics

Economic Growth: Testing the Water

Recycling jobs stack up against other major industries

Recycling spurs downstream job and economic growth

Gauging economic impact on a national level

Recycling Markets: Potential for easy growth

Legislative action effective for supporting recycling

It all starts with the community collection program

Pay-As-You-Throw Programs

Savings realized by EPA WasteWise partners

Economic Growth: Testing the Water

In August 2006, the South Carolina Department of Commerce released a report compiled by the College of Charleston's Department of Economics and Finance on the recycling industry's role in South Carolina's economy. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control's Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling funded this study.  The findings are astounding.  Below is an economic summary for South Carolina in 2005:

The report further estimates that if all of the common recyclables available in the municipal solid waste stream were recycled, South Carolina would see an immediate cost savings of as much as $30 million. At current growth rates, South Carolina's recycling industry promises a total economic impact of more than $11 billion by 2010.  These are real numbers that show the economic power of the simple act of recycling. 

In 2001, the Recycling Economic Information (REI) Study, an unprecedented national study that demonstrated the importance of recycling and reuse to the U.S. economy, was commissioned by the U.S. EPA, the National Recycling Coalition, and numerous states across the country.  According to the REI study, the U.S. recycling and reuse industry grosses approximately $236 billion per year and is competitive with other major industries (e.g., the food manufacturing industry) in employment and annual salaries.  The study clearly shows that recycling is profitable for local governments and businesses alike.

According to the REI Study, "[E]specially significant is the finding that recycling far outpaces the waste management industry because recycling adds value to materials, contributing to a growing labor force. Recycling also provides a large number of jobs that generally pay above the average national wage."

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Recycling jobs stack up against other major industries

The demand for recyclable materials moves beyond the basic reuse of resources. To a community, it can boil down to a central need—jobs. The South Carolina report points out that these recycling jobs pay above the state average.  And with an estimated 12 percent growth over the next five years, the number of these good South Carolina jobs is expected to grow.

In terms of employment and wages, the recycling and reuse industry compares very well to industries often targeted for recruitment and support by economic developers. Often times, the needs of the recycling industry are simple—specifically, they desire access to materials that are currently disposed.

Coca-Cola to Open World’s Largest PET Recycling Plant

Spartanburg, South Carolina, will soon become home to the world’s largest PET recycling plant. At full capacity, the facility is expected to produce approximately 100 million pounds of food-grade recycled PET annually. This production rate will help Coca-Cola meet their goal to recycle or reuse all the plastic bottles used in the U.S., but is also expected to put a strain on the currently tight recycling market. While the primary beverage container materials (i.e., aluminum and PET) have high value as recyclables in the marketplace, not enough material is recovered to meet the increasing demand for them. The plant will also be adding a significant number of jobs to the area.

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Recycling spurs downstream job and economic growth

The recycling industry is an elaborate and diverse network of public sector institutions and private companies. Investments in local recycling and processing, as well as policies and programs that encourage recycling and reuse, spur significant downstream investment in recycling manufacturing by the private sector. All of these actions promote economic growth. The REI study indicates that beyond the 1.1 million people directly employed by recycling, there are an additional 1.4 million jobs with a $52 billion payroll in businesses that support the recycling and reuse industry. That is a total of 2.5 million people whose wages are tied to the recycling industry; consider the impact of those 2.5 million employees when they spend their wages in the economy. 

Bar graph showing a comparison of the amount of people employed by the recycling and reuse industry with employment figures from other industries

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Gauging economic impact on a national level

It is clear from the REI study that recycling and reuse industries are a significant force in the U.S. economy. The REI numbers show that the U.S. is home to more than 56,000 recycling and reuse establishments that generate an annual payroll of nearly $37 billion and gross over $236 billion in annual receipts. The table above shows the direct impact of recycling and reuse industries on the U.S. economy.

SP Newsprint Company

With recyclable material recovery facilities in six of the eight Region 4 states, SP Newsprint Company is a supporter of recycling and an example of strong manufacturing in the Southeast. Their Web site boasts that each year their manufacturing operations recycle over one million tons of old newspapers to produce newsprint used at many of the major newspaper publishers in the U.S. Specifically, their paper mill in Dublin, Georgia, consumes more than 750,000 tons of recycled fiber each year in making 100% recycled newsprint. However, the Southeast domestic demand for old newsprint exceeds the available supply. If SP Newsprint recovered all the used newspapers and publishers production scrap in Georgia, they would still have to purchase quality tonnage from other Southeast market areas and beyond to meet their production needs.

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Factoring in the ripple effect

Recycling Marketing Co-op of Tennessee, Inc.

Rural communities often have a more difficult time collecting the volume of recyclables needed for program viability. The Recycling Marketing Cooperative of Tennessee (RMCT) was created to solve this conundrum. RMCT is a statewide recycling cooperative that provides assistance to communities of less than 10,000 people. In addition to providing program development, grant writing, and outreach assistance, RMCT provides full-scale marketing development and facilitates the combination of materials from smaller communities for increased revenue potential.

The RMCT has been highly successful in generating revenue and diverting landfill costs and is a prime candidate for replication in other states in the Southeast. In 2005, RMCT partner communities saw economic successes totaling:

  • An average of 600 tons per month of materials diverted from landfills and marketed for recycling
  • An average of $42,000 of revenue generated for most participating recycling programs
  • An average of $18,000 of landfill tipping fees saved for each participating recycling program.

For more information, visit the Recycling Marketing Cooperative of Tennessee, IncExit EPA Disclaimer.

How can states expect recycling to benefit their local economy? As South Carolina's economic report points out there is no one economic development category that covers all of the activities that fall under recycling. The report stresses that when communities evaluate the economic impacts of their local recycling programs and the businesses those programs support, they must include the indirect and induced impacts that are produced from recycling's ripple effect. This ripple effect is demonstrated in South Carolina where, "the total income impact of recycling is estimated to be $1.5 billion in 2005, which the State estimates will generate $30,604,726 in sales taxes and $38,674,883 in income taxes."

Recycling Markets: Potential for easy growth

Heard any good urban legends lately? How about this one: there are no good markets for recyclable materials. The past few years have seen steady, strong market prices for materials and there is no forecast of a crash. In fact, as China continues to import massive quantities of recyclable material from this country, U.S.-based manufacturers are scrambling to ensure that there will be enough supply of recyclable material to meet demand. Manufacturing companies do not just make products with recycled content solely in an attempt to "green" their image. Recycled materials are established as valuable commodities that provide an economic opportunity for both new and existing markets.

As shown in the figure below, market prices for commonly recyclable materials have generally increased over the past few years, suggesting that the recycling industry is strong and will remain a key contributor to local economies in the future. As market prices increase, the opportunity for new businesses to enter the economy and create jobs also increases. See the chart below for a glimpse at market price growth for major commodities over the last few years.

Graph Source (Below): Kentucky Department of Environmental Management, Division of Waste Management, The Marketplace Newsletter

Bar graph of percent increase in market value of recyclable materials

For example, the August 2006 edition of Resource Recycling points out that, "as the paper industry's most important raw material, collecting and processing recovered paper is becoming a global priority.” This is an important point to note, given the Southeast's strength in pulp and paper products production.  The American Forest and Paper Association certainly has taken notice.  That is why they have set a goal to recover 55% of all paper consumed in the U.S. by 2012.  Why the interest?  In 2005, 78% of the U.S. paper and paperboard mills used some recovered paper and 149 paper mills used recovered paper only.

The Southeast is also home to many companies that manufacture goods from recycled plastic. Mohawk Industries in Georgia is a prime example. Roland Jones, Procurement Manager for Mohawk Industries, Inc., reports that, “Mohawk Industries purchases and transports over 4 million pounds of recycled 'PET' bottles and food containers each week to our recycling facility in North Georgia for the purpose of processing this material into carpet fiber and fiberfill for home furnishings.  We currently purchase from over 40 states, some as far away as the west coast.  If more material was collected and recycled from sources located in the southeastern United States and closer to our recycling facility, we could reduce our transportation costs tremendously."

"There are enough plastic bottles going into the landfills of the Carolinas to run our plastic recycling plant 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. But due to low recycling rates, we must ship plastic from all over the U.S. including the West Cost, the Upper Midwest, and New England, as well as Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Although we are located in the Southeastern United States, less than 50% of our supply comes from this region."

Dwight Ensley

President, Ensley Corporation

Reidsville, North Carolina

A wealth of material

Today's strong markets depend upon a steady supply of recyclable materials for feedstock.  In the Southeast, the recovery rate of recyclables is less than 25 percent. If communities could reroute more cans, paper, and bottles from the landfill into the recycle bin, the region's economy would benefit directly, producing significant income and growth for businesses that depend on recovered commodities.

In fact, Curbside Value Partnership estimates that the eight states that make up EPA Region 4 dispose of $1.2 billion worth of recyclables each year. Add the avoided cost of landfill disposal to that and the potential value grows further.

According to the Southeast Region Installation Management Command (INCOM-SE), Army bases located in the Southeast were able to recycle 32% of their material solid waste (MSW) stream and 82% of their construction and demolition debris, collecting $12.8 million in revenue and a $66.8 million cost savings in disposal fees during the 2007 fiscal year. Wood was recycled the most with 77,764 tons diverted from landfills.

Kentucky Rural Recycling Saves Big

Washington County, Kentucky, first implemented recycling in 2002. Fast forward a few years later, add in 15 more employees to the recycling program, expand the program to five other neighboring counties, and use inmate labor as part of recycling efforts and what do you get? Not only has the county received one of the first Kentucky recycling grants ever, but they have also experienced tremendous economic success through recycling in their community. In 2004, the rural county pulled in 353 thousand pounds of recyclables and a profit of $2,464. In 2006 with Marion County as its first partner, Washington County brought in over 1.3 million pounds of materials and generated a profit of $10,919. Halfway into 2008, more than 1 million pounds have already been collected with an expectation to more than double profits from 2006.

For more information on Kentucky recycling grants, visit the Kentucky Division of Waste ManagementExit EPA Disclaimer .

Georgia estimates that each year it spends $100 million to throw away $300 million worth of recyclables.  That is part of the reason why in 2005, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs released a Georgia Statewide Waste Characterization Study. The study ran from the fall of 2003 though the fall of 2004 and found that approximately 36% of municipal solid waste disposed of in Georgia is composed of the most commonly recyclable materials that could have been utilized in manufacturing new products.  This includes more than:

The study showed that these valuable materials are going to landfills in Georgia, yet the recycling market infrastructure in Georgia makes it one of the most prominent recycling states in the nation:

Florida's Rural Impact

As a rural community, Jackson County, FL, collects recycling with drop-off centers, not curbside collection. To increase participation, the County implemented an incentive-based project and succeeded in achieving a 64% increase in material recovery (392 tons) in one year. To achieve this goal, the County utilized a three-pronged approach:

  • Partner with community groups, local sports teams, schools, state parks, and churches interested in sponsoring mobile recycling collection trailers or stationary recycling drop-off locations. Partners were entitled to a revenue share of the materials recycled.
  • Five new permanent drop-off locations were established and four additional sites are being considered.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive education and marketing campaign titled "It Pay$ to Recycle in Jackson County."

The County operates its own materials processing facility and revenue received from the increased collection resulted in a project payback period of less than one year. This project, funded in part by a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Innovative Grant, proved that with the right incentives and public education, recycling participation rates can be cost-effectively increased in rural counties.

During the summer of 2006, the Georgia Recycling Coalition and Department of Community Affairs conducted a study to determine the substantial economic impact of recycling in Georgia.  Preliminary findings show that:

The information obtained from the Waste Characterization Study, combined with the strength of the recycling markets in the state has renewed Georgia's commitment to assist local governments in promoting recycling. In an attempt to increase recycling participation rates, the state has committed to helping community recycling programs convert to single-stream collection operations by funding a series of regional recycling collection hubs.

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Legislative action effective for supporting recycling

Mississippi also understands that these available recyclables have value. That is why in 2006, the
Mississippi Legislature adopted recycling legislation that, among other things, requires that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality:

Mississippi isn’t the only state to adopt legislation to support recycling. Thanks to the North Carolina House Bill 1518, starting in 2008, 8,000 Alcohol Beverage Control permit holders must ensure that their recyclable beverage containers are separated, stored, and recycled.  An increase of approximately 50,000 tons of recycled glass is expected per year.

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It all starts with the community collection program

A greater commitment to increasing recycling totals would translate to a huge economic return at both the community and state level. The Aluminum Association reports that $1.2 billion worth of aluminum cans went into landfills last year. At the same time, large aluminum manufacturing plants in the Southeast had difficulty sourcing adequate supplies and incurred higher energy costs to run their operation because they had to turn to using virgin materials. In early 2008, aluminum recyclers enjoyed strong market prices. North Carolina’s end users paid approximately $.83 per pound of loose aluminum in January 2008, while Kentucky’s end users paid approximately $1.03 per pound of aluminum. In general, mixed metal markets experienced record prices in the Spring of 2008. In 2008, Alcoa, an international leader in aluminum recycling and manufacturing, announced that it had established a goal to raise the industry’s used beverage can recycling rate in North America from its current 52% rate to 75% by 2015.

By collecting more recyclable commodities from homes and businesses, the Southeast can help set the stage for the future expansion of current manufacturing operations. That expansion will result in more jobs, stronger tax revenue, and an overall brighter economic picture for the region. Recycling is a sustainable investment, one that reaps benefits for both your local community and the Southeast region as a whole.

Recycling Means Business in North Carolina

In March 2005, the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance (DPPEA) released a report titled Recycling Means Business in order to express to elected officials that, "North Carolina's recycling economy is one of the fastest growing job engines in the state.” The report was quick to gain attention when lawmakers learned that:

  • There are more than 500 recycling businesses in North Carolina employing 14,000 people in the state.
  • Recycling employs more people than either the bio-tech and agricultural livestock industries in the state.
  • Fifty-four percent of the recycling businesses surveyed forecast creating more recycling-related positions in the next two years.

For more information, visit the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance (DPPEA)Exit EPA Disclaimer.

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Pay-As-You-Throw Programs

In traditional solid waste programs, residents pay for waste collection through property taxes or a fixed fee, regardless of how much—or how little—trash they generate. In communities with Pay-As-You-Throw programs (PAYT), residents are charged for the collection of municipal solid waste—ordinary household trash—based on the amount they actually throw away, after reduction and recycling efforts. This creates a direct economic incentive to recycle more and to generate less waste. Most communities with PAYT charge residents a fee for each bag or can of waste they generate. In a small number of communities, residents are billed based on the weight of their trash. Either way, these programs are direct: reduced disposal results in reduced cost for the individual. Research indicates that PAYT can be a very cost-effective tool to increase recycling and waste diversion. The program of “paying as you go” shows national increases in recycling rates of 32—59%. For example, a survey in Iowa found that recycling increased an average of 50% after PAYT was implemented. Other benefits are that the program is flexible, quick to implement, and works well in communities of all sizes. According to the EPA and Skumatz Economic Research Associates (SERA) report Pay as you Throw (PAYT) in the US: 2006 Update and AnalysisExit EPA Disclaimer, PAYT programs in the U.S. have grown from about 100 in the late 1980s to over 7,000 in 2007, representing about 25% of U.S. communities. Collectively, these program are annually keeping 4.6-8.3 million of tons of MSW out of the landfill, and saving 61-109 million BTUs.

Downtown Athens, Georgia & Pay-As-You-Throw

Creative Solutions for Efficient Recycling

Problem: Downtown Athens has too little space for trash and recycling receptacles and few alleyways. As a large college town, the late night bar and restaurant scene requires night-time collection to keep the streets clean. Much of the trash collected consists of recyclable materials, such as beverage bottles and cans.

Solution: The Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste DepartmentExit EPA Disclaimer decided to implement a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program which requires customers to purchase clear county-issued bags for their trash and to pay for trash collection based on the frequency of collection needed. Due to the space limitations downtown, the commercial business sector turned to an all bag collection program. The cost for the county-required, clear “trash” bags is currently $1 per bag, while recycling bags are free of charge. This setup makes recycling a more attractive and affordable option for downtown businesses when compared to disposing of waste. The use of clear bags also makes it easy to pinpoint which businesses could benefit from outreach about the benefits of recycling.

In addition to the PAYT program, a night shift supervisor was hired in the county’s fiscal year 2007 to communicate with bars and restaurants in the PAYT program and to run the program more efficiently. Since the introduction of a night shift supervisor, the percentage of tons recycled by the downtown businesses has improved 96%.

For more about ACC's PAYT program, check out this Recycling Today ArticleExit EPA Disclaimer from 2004.

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Savings realized by EPA WasteWise Partners

WasteWise is a free, voluntary, EPA program that targets the reduction of municipal solid waste and select industrial wastes. It helps organizations eliminate these wastes, benefiting their bottom line and the environment. WasteWise is a flexible program that allows partners to design their own waste reduction programs tailored to their needs. The program offers assistance, in addition to recognition and awards. As of early 2008, WasteWise has 1,889 partners (including alumni) spanning more than 54 industry sectors. Partners include large corporations, small and medium-sized businesses, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, state and local governments, tribes, and other institutions. In addition, WasteWise has 182 endorsers, mainly membership-based organizations, from more than 15 industry sectors. Winners of the 2007 WasteWise Partnership Awards in the Southeast include:

Summary of Estimates of Direct Economic Activity

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