SUSTAINABILITY
Recycling is Essential to a Sustainable Future

Recycling is critical to the future of our planet. The industry is researching and developing ways to recycle new products, using innovative technologies to better separate, sort, and process materials, and working with manufacturers to encourage design with recyclability in mind.

Recycling’s Role in Sustainability

A sustainable planet cannot exist without recycling. The recycling industry provides valuable feedstock for the production of goods. The use of recyclable materials in manufacturing produces enormous benefits:

  • Eliminates the need for mining, drilling for oil and natural gas, and other harmful environmental practices used to harvest raw materials;
  • Slows the pace of global deforestation;
  • Reduces landfill use
  • Lowers energy costs;
  • Cuts greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in local communities; and
  • Builds a culture among employers and employees of proper environmental, health, and safety practices.
A Proven Solution to the Climate Crisis

Our planet needs the help of recycling for a sustainable future.

  • 130-135 million metric tons diverted from landfills each year
  • 27-90% reduction in energy consumption depending on commodity
  • 35-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions depending on the material

Recycling 1 ton of material is equivalent to*:

  • 7,400 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle;
  • 3,300 pounds of coal burned; and
  • Annual sequestration by 3.9 acres of U.S. forests.

*Calculation based on the average figure for all commodities.

Estimated Maximum Energy and GHG Benefits of Recyclinga

Calculation based on the average figure for all commodities

Material/Product

Unit Energy Consumption

(MMBtu per ton M/P, except %)

Unit GHG Emissions

(mtCO2eq per ton M/P, except %)

Recb

Primc

Bend

%Bene

Recb

Primc

Bend

%Bene

Corrugated Containers

12.07

27.18

15.10

56%

4.95

8.09

3.14

39%

Office Paper

27.21

37.29

10.08

27%

5.37

8.23

2.86

35%

Mixed Paper (general)

12.37

32.93

20.56

62%

4.07

7.61

3.55

47%

HDPE

16.75

66.99

50.24

75%

0.67

1.52

0.85

56%

PET

19.21

51.13

31.92

62%

1.06

2.21

1.15

52%

Mixed Plastics

18.23

57.43

39.20

68%

0.91

1.94

1.03

53%

Aluminum Cans

47.80

200.57

152.76

76%

1.86

10.99

9.13

83%

Aluminum Ingot

13.10

126.95

113.85

90%

0.27

7.48

7.20

96%

Steel Cans

16.58

36.54

19.97

55%

1.81

3.64

1.83

50%

Copper Wire

40.76

123.35

82.59

67%

2.30

6.78

4.49

66%

Mixed Metals

27.53

94.08

66.55

71%

1.83

6.22

4.39

71%

Glass

5.34

7.46

2.13

29%

0.33

0.60

0.28

47%

aThese results are based on EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM), Version 15, using default values as a first approximation.

b“Rec” is recycling unit energy consumption (million Btu per ton) or unit GHG emission (metric ton CO2 equivalent per ton).

c“Prim” is primary unit energy consumption (million Btu per ton) or unit GHG emission (metric ton CO2 equivalent per ton).

d“Ben” is the benefit from recycling relative to production using 100% primary material (Prim – Rec). This produces estimated maximum benefits.

e“%Ben” is the ratio (expressed as a percent) of Ben:Prim. It represents the relative reduction in or avoidance of energy consumption or GHG emissions.

Some values are rounded.

How the Recycling Industry is Advancing Sustainability
Research and Development

Recycling is a sophisticated, “green” industry that is at the forefront of finding new ways to recycle materials and expand recycling’s infrastructure to match today’s diverse product streams, develop new markets for recycled materials, and improve methodologies to measure recycling system performance.

The industry’s ultimate goal is to conserve resources, reduce contamination in recycling streams, increase processing efficiency, and improve markets for recycled content.

The industry is investing in sorting equipment, collection, processing technologies, continuous safety improvement, tracking apps, and more. Recyclers are continuing to develop solutions for new materials that increasingly end up in recycling streams, like those used in 3D printing materials, composites, and the latest electronic gadgets.
Design for Recycling
The recycling industry works with the manufacturing sector to prioritize recyclability during a product’s design phase along with cost, safety, and other factors.

Products designed with recyclability in mind:

  • Are easily recycled through current or newly designed recycling processes and procedures;
  • Are cost effective to recycle, whereby the cost to recycle does not exceed the value of their recycled materials;
  • Are free of hazardous materials that impede the recycling process;
  • Maximize the use of recycled materials and/or components within product manufacturing; and
  • Have a net gain in the overall recyclability of the product while reducing its overall negative impact on the environment.
Innovation
The recycling industry is constantly evolving to meet changing needs. When it comes to metals sorting, sensors and machines replaced hands and magnets. X-ray fluorescence analyzers are giving way in some applications to laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) technology. Plastics, electronics, and more benefit from near infrared (NIR) and visible spectroscopy (VIS) technologies that sort streams by color and material composite.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to play a larger role in the recycling industry. AI is already used in some larger materials recovery facilities, where AI-guided robots can pull recyclables from material streams. In the future, AI machines are expected to be able to recognize materials, trucks, and even drivers with optical technology.

When connected to powerful computer processors, conveyors, and other equipment, technologies that detect and separate materials based on qualities such as magnetism, density, shape, size, elemental composition, color, and other characteristics can rapidly separate many tons of material each hour.

Creating Good Jobs in Local Communities
The economic benefits generated by the recycling industry are far-reaching. Not only are recycling facilities located in every state throughout the country, and in both urban and rural communities, but the firms that supply materials as well as goods and services to processors and brokers are also located in every part of the country.

The industry directly supports nearly 160,000 jobs while another 346,499 jobs throughout the U.S. economy are indirectly supported by the recycling industry through suppliers and the indirect impact of the industry’s expenditures. Indirect jobs include everything from manufacturing and farming to retail and food industry.

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