Wednesday | 15 February, 2017 | 1:50 pm

Transformative work

Written by By Corinna Petry

Supplying half of the world’s raw material needs, scrap is the greenest commodity

February 2017 - By its nature, the recycling industry is global, it provides jobs and incomes, it inspires behavior helpful to the health of the planet, and there is potential and the human desire to achieve greater heights. 

Robin K. Wiener, president of the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), described the breadth and depth of this vital piece of a worldwide economic system. Speaking Nov. 15—on America Recycles Day—before the U.S. Senate’s Recycling Caucus, Wiener briefed legislators on the many ways the industry touches everyone.

ISRI represents 1,300 private, for-profit recycling companies in the United States and across the globe that process, broker and consume the entire range of recyclable commodities, including metals, paper, plastics, glass, textiles, rubber and electronics.

“Our members are located in every state in the country and range in size from small family owned businesses to large multinational corporations. ISRI promotes safe, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible recycling through networking, advocacy, and education,” Wiener said.

FFJ 0217 scrap image1

Ferrous scrap is a key ingredient for electric-arc furnace steel producers, which mix it with other elements to make alloys.

Despite difficult market conditions due to slow economic growth at home and abroad, recycling remains a “vibrant activity and the first link in the global manufacturing supply chain, supplying nearly 50 percent of the world’s raw materials needs while providing unmistakable economic and environmental benefits in our local communities, across the country and throughout the globe.”

Recycling has long been recognized as one of the first green industries, “born of the need to recover and conserve valuable resources. From the earliest of times, people recognized the intrinsic value of recycling and the benefits associated with using, and re-using, existing materials to create new products.”

The U.S. scrap recycling industry has grown into a $100 billion sector dedicated to transforming materials to create new products and driving economies by making the old, new again.

Tons of value

The U.S. recycling industry in 2015 transformed more than 130 million metric tons of obsolete materials from consumers, businesses, residential sources and manufacturers into specification grade commodities for purchase by industrial consumers. Those commodities included:

• 67 million metric tons of iron and steel;

• 47.2 million metric tons of paper;

• More than 8 million metric tons of aluminum, copper, and other nonferrous metals;

• More than 5 million tons of electronics;

• More than 3.5 million tons of plastic scrap; and

• More than 122 million scrap tires.

“Notice I use the word ‘commodities’ when describing the materials the recycling industry processes and produces. This is because recyclable materials are commodities, not waste. They are highly valuable and tradable products, produced according to globally recognized specifications for purchase by industrial consumers around the world—including steel mills, metal refiners, plastic manufacturers, foundries and paper mills.”

 Recycled materials are routinely used in place of virgin commodities since they are often less expensive, of comparable—if not better—quality, and save energy. These are all important factors in the manufacturing process, Wiener said

The numbers tell the story.

• Today in the U.S., steelmakers rely on iron and steel scrap—processed from items as diverse as automobiles, household appliances, demolished bridges, and old machinery—for producing roughly two-thirds  of  all  the  steel  produced  in  the  country  every  year.

• More than half of the paper industry’s needs here in the U.S. are met today through the use of recovered fiber produced from such items as old newspapers, magazines, catalogs, office paper and used corrugated boxes.

Recycling is an important economic engine and job creator, and the economic benefits generated by the industry are widespread. An independent study conducted by John Dunham and Associates shows that the scrap recycling industry directly employs more than 149,000 people in the U.S., with an additional 323,000 Americans supported by the activities of the recycling industry. 

“These are real people with real jobs, making an average of $77,000 in wages and benefits and generating more than $11 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues annually,” Wiener told the caucus.

Protecting Earth

Recycling offers real solutions for balancing economic growth and environmental stewardship. “By protecting the earth’s air, water, and land, recycling gives us a means to minimize our impact on the planet and directly contribute to our quality of life,” Wiener said.

For  example, using  recycled  rubber  from scrap tires to use as road surfacing material has both significant safety and environment benefits. Roads built with rubberized asphalt last longer, provide more traction and are quieter, thus reducing the need for other sound absorption tools, such as noise barriers.

FFJ 0217 scrap image2

ISRI and its members advocate recycling education. A Brownie troop drops off collected beverage can pulls at United Scrap Metal in Cicero, Illinois.

Bottled up

Another key area of growth for the recycling industry is plastics recycling. Modern society would be lost without the performance and utility that plastics provides. “These very same plastics are increasingly being recycled and processed into new products and put back into commerce,” Wiener said. “Plastics recycling is the fastest growing segment of the recycling industry, with more than 3.5 million tons of post-industrial and post-consumer plastics scrap recycled in the U.S. last year.” 

Citing a joint report issued by the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Chemistry Council, Wiener said that collection of post-consumer plastic bottles has grown from under 500 million pounds in the late 1990s to just shy of 3 billion pounds in 2015.”

Post-industrial plastic scrap—such as PVC from building and construction debris, pallet and film stretch wrap used to package goods for transport, and engineered plastics from electronics—are increasingly finding their way into the commodity stream, with recyclers making significant investments in capital and technology to capture these materials. “As recyclers bring more of this material to market, we expect to see a dramatic jump in the plastics recycling rate in the future.”

ISRI approved a comprehensive set of post-consumer plastic scrap specifications during 2016 that will help to ensure new materials are recycled and added to an already diverse array of materials that plastic recyclers handle.


The health of the recycling industry is closely related to the health of the global economy, “and thus sensitive to the state of both domestic and overseas manufacturing, as well as fluctuations in currency markets, the flow of imports, and of course, volatility in commodity prices. It is no wonder then that the scrap market is cyclical in nature,” Wiener said.

When she first joined ISRI more than 25 years ago, Wiener was told that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan monitored scrap prices as an indicator of the direction of the economy. “That relationship continues to hold true today, and I would argue that we are even more tied to the state of the global economy today than we were 25 years ago,” she said. 


Wiener said everyone who can should encourage the next generation of recyclers. “This is close to my heart as the mother of two young girls. I believe strongly in the importance of recycling, and in the importance of the availability of education programs to encourage and foster interest in the sciences, technology, and math.”

ISRI, said Wiener, plays an active role through the distribution of a K through 12 school curriculum, designed to connect the science of recycling to the act of recycling. “Personally, I can’t think of a better way to influence the next generation of lawmakers, journalists, manufacturers, and global citizens than through a conversation starting at the schools.” MM


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