Recycling: Economic benefits for consumers and businesses
Feb 21, 2017 02:10PM ● Published by Bryan Scott
Recycling is not only environmentally beneficial, but also economically beneficial and viable, according to experts across the valley. (Mandy Ditto/City Journals)
Cities in the Salt Lake Valley have been promoting and pushing recycling in their communities for years, but what many people don’t know is how much recycling is constantly changing.
This includes the changes made to pricing and the value of different recyclable goods, which is what can make recycling seem economically viable at some times, but not others. Because of supply-and-demand changes in the materials companies can recycle most recently, is recycling really financially reasonable? Is it saving money, or is it costing Utah more than it is worth?
Economic values of recycling
According to the 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2007, recycling and reuse activities accounted for 757,000 jobs in the U.S., produced $36.6 billion in wages and produced $6.7 billion in tax revenues. This means that “on a national average, there are 1.57 jobs, $76,030 million wages and $14,101 tax revenues attributable for every 1,000 tons of recyclables collected and recycled” in the U.S., the report read.
“The important thing they’re finding is that recycling provides environmental benefits, while simultaneously contributing to economic growth,” said Lesha Earl, public education representative for the Trans-Jordan Landfill in the Salt Lake Valley. “The materials recovery facility — they’re the recycling people — what they do is bail everything up, or contain it, so they can sell it to markets that need that raw material, whether it’s going through the recycling process or wherever they are selling it. From there it goes on to making new products, which is a whole industry in itself.”
Recycling has become much more complex and rich. It isn’t just about reusing something once, but being able to reuse raw materials — plastic, glass, metal — to produce more new products, instead of having to go to the “virgin” or unused source of materials, Earl said. There are companies that just buy post-consumer products to make their own products.
“Rather than mining the ore out of the ground, they will go to these companies and say we’ll buy your steel cans and scrap metal,” Earl said.
Aluminum is one material that is infinitely reusable, and the cost to recycle aluminum is roughly 8 percent of the cost to mine ore, transport it to a facility, melt it and use it to create a new product, said Mark Hooyer, executive director of the Trans-Jordan Landfill.
“Why wouldn’t you, at that point? You’re talking a raw material that you can get available at far less a cost than if you’re buying brand-new aluminum ore off the boat from China,” Hooyer said.
When it comes to throwing away an aluminum can, it can either spend 500 years in a landfill before it decomposes, or it can be recycled infinitely, Earl said.
This process is called the circular economy, which means keeping all of these precious products and materials for as long as possible, to get as much value out of the material as possible, Earl said. “We don’t want to throw away good money.”
With the developments and changes that have been taking place over the last 50 years, it has become crucial for companies that want to stay in business to be looking at recycled products available, rather than going after raw materials to continue manufacturing, Hooyer said. There is less and less available, and so recycled goods are becoming more valuable to businesses everywhere.
A shift that has taken place as the need for circular economy has become more prevalent is that, instead of the consumer being the one mostly responsible for reducing, reusing and recycling, “it is now the company’s responsibility to buy products that are made from post-consumer materials so that they are able to enter the circular economy and are able to maintain that circular motion, they stay in cycle as long as they can,” Earl said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has begun to acknowledge this shift and launched a new project at the end of 2016 called Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for A New Economy. The national average recycling rate is 34 percent, and this initiative will encourage more recycling to create a stronger, new economy.
Starting in January, the initiative kicked off to follow cities and companies that are being a good example of recycling, and pushing businesses everywhere to share their data and progress to potentially “unlock an estimated $4.5 trillion in additional economic growth by 2030,” according to research done for the initiative.
“If you think of how many businesses are a member of the Chamber of Commerce, it’s pretty significant that their parent organization is saying, ‘We’re taking this seriously,’” Earl said. “If you want to be in business, if you want to make good money, you’ve got to be circular, the linear is a thing of the past.”
The viability of glass recycling
Momentum Recycling is one of the premiere glass recyclers in Utah and Colorado. It is a for-profit company, with revenues brought in from collecting and processing glass, said John Lair, president and CEO of the company.
“It’s economically viable to recycle glass,” Lair said. “First you have to pay to gather the glass, there’s a cost associated with that. Sometimes we pay that cost, sometimes the municipality pays that cost, sometimes it’s shared. Second cost is transportation, how to get that glass from the drop-off location to the recycling plant. That is often the most expensive part of glass recycling … that’s a major part of the cost equation. The final cost is the processing cost, the cost to run equipment, repair equipment, staff to run the equipment.”
There are over 60 public drop-off collection points across the Wasatch Front that go to Momentum Recycling’s facility, with some being paid for by the municipalities, others paid for by Momentum and others by both. Once recycled glass has been processed, cleaned and separated from contamination — bacteria, sugars, lids, caps, food — the glass is sized and then marketed to industrial users, Lair said.
“The other end of the equation is Owen’s Corning,” Lair said. Owens Corning is a fiberglass insulation business based in Nephi, Utah, and purchases 80–90 percent of the recycled glass produced from Momentum’s plant, he said.
“I’ve been told that there’s a tremendous amount of energy that is saved, there’s other savings offsetting raw materials — the mining, the transport of virgin materials from wherever it is mined — using recycled glass in its place. There’s a range of areas where they save money when they use recycled glass, and those savings allow them to position their products more favorably in the market, which allows them to sell more, which allows them to hire more people, so it’s kind of this long chain of benefits; it doesn’t just start or stop in our plant.”
Why this matters
Though recycling and using recycled materials is becoming more prevalent for business owners and manufacturers, much of the process and the success of a circular economy lies with community members recycling. Without recycled goods being put into curbside bins, there isn’t anything to be reused later for manufacturers.
“From our perspective, we’re running out of landfill space, and there are two landfills currently in Salt Lake Valley,” Earl said. “Once they are closed, there will be no more in Salt Lake County, and they’re going to see their rates go up because they are going to have to transport material further away to the landfills. It makes sense to save space in the landfills by diverting it.”
Knowing that everyone in the valley will have to start paying for new space to dump waste once the landfills are full should be enough to motivate more people to be aware and recycle as much as possible, Earl said. Keeping more materials out of landfills and saving raw materials in the earth longer can make a huge difference in the economy for everyone.
Momentum Recycling processes about 1,200 tons of glass every month, and keeping that much glass and more from the landfill will continue to save space so costs are lower for everyone in the valley, Lair said.
“The more you recycle, the less you have to pay for disposal, and the cost you pay today to dispose in your landfill is based on the fact that we have a landfill close by,” he said. “It’s not so much how you can save money today by recycling — there’s some of that — but the real motivator for people who recycle today should be about avoiding excessive cost increase in the future. It’s hard to convince people to save money later, but it is the best tool that we have to talk about what we can do today.”