The lesser-known benefit of recycling

By: Sara Kandel | C&G Newspapers | Published April 10, 2013

 Once at a recycling plant, recyclable material is separated, compressed and baled.

Once at a recycling plant, recyclable material is separated, compressed and baled.

Photo by Sara Kandel

In the bin

Come garbage day, most curbside recycling bins are stuffed with paper, plastic and glass bottles, cans, and cardboard, but there’s a whole lot more that can be added to the heap.

“We take plastics ones and twos, both bottles and wide-mouth containers. We take fours through sevens, same thing, and then we take bulky plastics number twos, like kitty litter containers or a kid’s (plastic) set with a desk and chairs, for example,” said Michael Csapo, general manager of RRRASOC, referring to the number classification code found on the bottom of most plastic items.

The only type of plastic that isn’t wanted is plastic film, like bags and shrink-wrap. When it comes to metals, more than just aluminum and tins can go in the bin — pots, pans, toasters and even curling irons are recyclable.

“Nuts, bolts and screws and all small items can go into the bin, too,” said Karen Bever, the executive assistant at SOCRRA.

“We just ask you put them in a can and tape or seal the lid up so they don’t fall through the conveyor belt or holes in the bin. At Christmastime, we always get a lot of questions about lights. And, yes, Christmas lights are recyclable, too, because of the metal inside them.”

For more information on local recycling guidelines, contact your city offices or local recycling provider.

Recycling reduces the amount of waste going into landfills and is good for the environment, but there is a lesser-known benefit of recycling. An economic one.

Hard numbers detailing the impact of recycling on Michigan’s economy aren’t available, but industry experts estimate that the process of recycling generates millions of dollars each year.

“Studies have shown that, if you recycle something, you generate more economic activity than if you landfill something,” said Michael Csapo, the general manager of the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County.

“It makes sense. All along the way throughout the recycling process, it’s generating economic activity, but if you landfill it, then that economic value is lost. That economic activity generates income, generates revenue, generates jobs, generates taxes.”

Trash is picked up and taken to a landfill. Recycled materials are picked up; taken to a sorting facility where they are separated, compressed and baled; and then they’re shipped off to a manufacturer who will either reuse them as they are or melt them down into pellets or another usable form, then resell them.

Recycled materials go through more hands and therefore generate more economic activity. The logic is sound. And the numbers should be easily measurable, but the state doesn’t require recycling processors and manufacturers to report them separately. Recycling organizations around the state are fighting to change that.

“That’s part of the problem. There’s no way to measure the economic activity generated (by recycling) in Michigan,” said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition. “We think the state needs to be involved in this because of the value to the state. Most recycling programs are paid for locally, but the benefit is much greater than that. Recycling benefits us all.”

According to a 2011 study headed by the MRC using national data and information from a survey of organizations and businesses involved in the recycling industry in Michigan, if Michigan upped its recycling efforts to be in line with other Great Lakes states and increased the amount of recycled solid waste from 10 percent to 30 percent, it would create 7,000-13,000 new jobs, as much as $300 million in income and up to $22 million in additional state revenue tax.

“About 50 percent of our waste can actually be recycled,” O’Brien said. “The value of that waste, if it’s not going to the landfill and is being recycled instead, is almost $500 million a year.”

The coalition has been petitioning the state to take the economic benefits of recycling seriously and implement a comprehensive system to measure, regulate and promote recycling.

“This compares to an initial raw material value of nearly $435 million, or nearly $44 per capita, as well as the other job, income and tax revenue benefits identified by public sector consultants,” O’Brien wrote in the report.

The economic benefits of recycling reach far beyond organizations and businesses involved in the industry, though. Local municipalities can, and in some cases do, benefit from it.

The South Oakland County Regional Recycling Authority, or SOCRRA, charges each of its 12 member cities $27.50 per ton to pick up solid waste and pays them $50 per ton for recycled materials.

“The more the city saves on their trash bill, the more money they have that can go to saving other services that are in threat of being cut during difficult economic times,” said Karen Bever, the executive assistant and educational coordinator at SOCRRA. “If residents recycle enough, the city could break even and not have a trash bill.”

Most cities are a long way away from that. On average, SOCRRA receives 450 tons of solid waste per day from its 12 member cities, compared to only 60 tons of recyclables.

“Clearly, the financial investment to move Michigan toward the benchmark of a high-performing state will yield a significant return on that investment, without even considering the important environmental benefits associated with achieving stated goals,” O’Brien said.

And the environmental impact is high. Recycling leaves less of a carbon footprint, uses less energy and doesn’t take up as much space as landfills.

“We know from life-cycle analysis that, if you use virgin material, you create more air pollution than if you use recycled materials,” Csapo said.

In 2012, RRRASOC processed about 60,000 tons of recycled materials, which is calculated to have saved 445,680 trees and 3,618 tons of mined resources, and reduced airborne pollution emissions by 66,756 tons and waterborne pollution emissions by 249 tons.

“Basically, what recycling does is capture materials already cycling in our economy — the benefit is it uses a lot less energy. We are not going from oil to plastic; we are going from plastic to plastic,” O’Brien said. “Recycling benefits the environment, and through the jobs and revenues it creates, the economy.”