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Southeast Manufacturers Join to Spur Job Creation Through Recycling


From local to global, conservation of natural resources and ecosystems -- and the quality of our air, land and waters -- have become increasingly public, and pressing, issues in recent decades. Pressures on fundamental ecosystems and services are increasing along with the costs and risks associated with climate change. At the same time, local communities across the U.S. are struggling to cope with changing demographics, rapid and profound technological change, sluggish job creation, and widening gaps in income, wealth and political representation.

The numerous and varied benefits to be gained by doing more with less -- by reducing waste, reusing, and recycling materials, water and energy -- are widely acknowledged. Doing so creates cleaner, healthier communities and helps minimize destructive environmental impacts. Yet, in the face of all this, Americans continue to lag compared to their industrialized peers when it comes to recycling. Furthermore, the positive economic impacts recycling is having in terms of boosting local and regional economies are underappreciated, undervalued or largely unnoticed.

The shortfall of domestic U.S. supply and the demand for recycled materials hits home in the Southeast, where manufacturers make use of more recycled materials than in any other region of the nation. Recycling is a growth industry, one that continued to expand through the depths of the last recession. Why? “Because there's value there,” Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) executive director Will Sagar highlighted in a 3p interview.

Recycling: Creating green jobs, boosting local economies

According to a College of Charleston study, employment in the recycling industry in South Carolina grew from 26,537 in 1995 to 37,440 in 2005. With a total $6.5 billion economic impact, recycling contributed $69 million in state tax revenue -- a figure SERDC forecast would grow 12 percent over the ensuing five years.

The size and vitality of the recycling industry is even more impressive viewed nationally. The recycling industry generated some $236 billion in revenues in 2007 and employed more than 1 million people, accounting for about 2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Skepticism regarding the economics and benefits of recycling persists despite the results of numerous empirical research studies to the contrary, however. The benefits recycling confers with regard to local economic growth and development, job creation and increasing business competitiveness needs to be more widely known and more highly valued, according to recycling specialists and advocates.

As College of Charleston professors Frank Hefner and Calvin Blackwell, authors of a widely cited report, “The Economic Impact of the Recycling Industry in South Carolina,” state:

“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.”

The Southeast Recycling Development Council

SERDC's on a mission to get the word out, and to get more people to participate more actively in recycling programs across 11 Southeast states. A nonprofit organization, SERDC came together in 2006 after representatives from Southeast manufacturers met to discuss a common, competitive need – the need for more domestic recycled materials to feed their manufacturing facilities.

Joining with the EPA and state and local government agencies to promote and foster recycling across the eight EPA Region 4 and three additional Southeastern states, SERDC now unites industry, government and non-government organizations (NGOs) in promoting sustainable recycling in: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The economic impact and benefits of recycling are manifold, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes clear in its fact sheet, “The Economics of Recycling in the Southeast: Understanding the Whole Picture.” Key among them are job creation, budgetary savings, tax revenue generation and creation of economic development opportunities.

The study carried out by the College of Charleston's Hefner and Blackwell for the South Carolina Department of Commerce, which is in the process of being updated, found that in 2005 the state's recycling industry yielded the following very real benefits:

  • Jobs - Directly and indirectly supported 37,440 jobs with $1.5 billion in personal income impact.

  • Revenue - Produced an estimated $69 million in state tax revenue.

  • Economic Impact - Generated an estimated total economic impact of $6.5 billion.

And that's just for starters. Hefner and Blackwell also concluded that at current rates of growth, the state's recycling industry would have an $11 billion-plus positive impact on South Carolina's economy by 2010. Moreover, the state would realize an immediate cost savings of as much as $30 million if all of the common recyclable materials in the state's waste stream were recycled.

The South Carolina researchers also found that pay in the state's recycling sector is above average, and forecast that job creation in the recycling sector would grow at an extraordinary 12 percent rate over the ensuing five years.

Recycling: A green job-creation engine

Growth in income and employment become increasingly skewed in the U.S. since the 1970s. The recycling industry as an engine of well-paid job creation is one of the sector's least well-known, overlooked or ignored attributes, SERDC's Sagar points out.

While SERDC is working with governments and manufacturers to spur recycling in the Southeast, California has set a target of recycling 75 percent of its waste by 2020. Recycling's job creation potential is a key facet of the plan.

The California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) put the state's waste stream at 72.8 million tons in 2010 and forecast that would grow to 80 million by 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) highlights in a March blog post. Only half of that is reduced, recycled or composted at present. The rest is dumped in landfills, incinerated or sent to other states or countries for final disposal -- often fouling land, water and air, and people's health.

Increasing California's recycling rate to 75 percent by 2020 would create a minimum 110,000 new recycling jobs and many more in associated business sectors, according to the results of a Tellus Institute study commissioned by NRDC. Recycling 75 percent of plastic waste alone (an additional 2.12 million tons) would create 29,000 new jobs, more than any other material.

Comparing the various waste processing options in terms of job creation, Tellus Institute researchers found that landfilling and incineration would create the fewest number of jobs per ton of waste. Entitled, “From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California,” the study can be downloaded free from NRDC's website.

Look for Part II of this series on 3p, coming soon.

Image credit: CP Manufacturing

Graph credit: Alcoa

Pie Chart credit: Californians Against Waste

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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