Communicating the Benefits of Recycling
Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.
Calculate Climate Benefits
Using tools available online, solid waste planners can demonstrate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions prevented through their community's waste reduction efforts—an exciting way to show community members and decision makers that your waste reduction program has real climate benefits!
Check out EPA's WAste Reduction Model (WARM), a free tool you can use to calculate the GHG emissions prevented through alternative waste management practices such as source reduction, recycling, or composting. By entering your waste reduction numbers into the model, you can calculate the resulting GHG reductions in metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE)—a standard measure of greenhouse gas emissions—or energy units (million BTU). Then, using the Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, you can translate GHG emissions reductions into real-life equivalents such as barrels of oil, acres of forest preserved from deforestation, or passenger cars not driven for one year.
There are significant environmental and economic benefits associated with recycling. Recycling helps create jobs, can be more cost effective than trash collection, reduces the need for new landfills, saves energy, supplies valuable raw materials to industry, and adds significantly to the U.S. economy.
- More Jobs, Economic Development, and Tax Revenue
- More Energy Security
- Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Less Pressure on Landfills and More Natural Resources for Future Generations
- State Economic Impacts
More Jobs, Economic Development, and Tax Revenue
- Recycling creates new businesses that haul, process, and broker recovered materials, as well as companies that manufacture and distribute products made with these recycled materials.
- The recycling and reuse industry consists of approximately 56,000 establishments that employ over 1.1 million people, generate an annual payroll of nearly $37 billion, and gross over $236 billion in annual revenues.
- Unlike the waste management industry, recycling adds value to materials, contributing to a growing labor force including materials sorters, dispatchers, truck drivers, brokers, sales representatives, process engineers, and chemists. These jobs also generally pay above the average national wage, and many are in inner city urban areas where job creation is vital.
- The recycling and reuse industry generates billions in federal, state, and local tax revenues (estimated at $12.9 billion in 2001).
More Energy Security
- The amount of energy saved differs by material, but almost all recycling processes achieve significant energy savings compared to virgin material production. For example, recycling of aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from virgin sources. For each can recycled, this is enough energy to run a television or computer for three hours.
- By conservative estimates, recycling was projected to save 605 trillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) in 2005, equal to the energy used in 6 million households annually.
- About 4 percent of the U.S.'s total energy consumption is used in the production of all plastic products, and some of this energy can be recovered through the recycling of plastics products after their useful life is ended.
- For each pound of aluminum recovered, Americans save the energy resources to generate about 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity. This is enough energy to meet the electric needs of a city the size of Pittsburgh for six years.
- Using glass cullet (e.g., broken glass) allows the glass container industry to reduce energy input to its furnaces. Energy costs drop 2 to 3 percent for every 10 percent cullet used in the manufacturing process.
Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Current evidence suggests that it is likely that human activities have contributed to accelerated warming of the Earth’s surface through the increase of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) which have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
- While there is uncertainty regarding the human and ecological impacts of climate change, scientists have identified that our health, agriculture, water resources, forests, wildlife and coastal areas are vulnerable to the changes that global warming may bring.
- In 2005, recycling was projected to avoid—through a combination of energy savings, forest carbon sequestration, and lower methane emissions—48 million metric tons of carbon emissions (MTCE), which is a standard measure of GHG emissions. This is the equivalent of taking 36 million cars off the road for one year.
Climate Benefits Example
Howard County, Maryland—a county of 270,000 residents in the heart of central Maryland between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—recycled 12,520 tons of glass, plastic, and metals in 2003. Using the tools described above, the county can calculate that its recycling efforts prevented the release of 15,641 metric tons of carbon equivalent, approximately equal to the electricity use of 7,362 American households in one year.
Less Pressure on Landfills and More Natural Resources for Future Generations
- Recycling revenues can help defray recycling costs and forestall the need for new disposal capacity as every cubic yard of material recycled is one less cubic yard of landfill space that is required. These avoided costs are part of the “revenues” that recycling brings to a community. For example, in 1996, Ann Arbor, Michigan, spent $71 per ton on recycling and composting, compared to $86 per ton for trash collection and disposal.
- In 1996, 130 million cubic yards of material were diverted from landfills due to recycling and composting. If this amount of material had not been recycled, the U.S. would have needed 64 additional landfills, each with enough capacity to serve the combined city populations of Dallas and Detroit.
- By substituting recovered scrap materials for the use of trees, metal ores, minerals, oil, and other virgin materials, recycling reduces the pressure to expand forestry and mining production, which can be environmentally damaging. For example, recycling one ton of paper saves the equivalent of 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water.
- Fossil fuels and metals are nonrenewable resources—they cannot be replenished by nature within our lifetimes and are therefore, in limited supply. The more of these materials we extract, the less that remains for future generations.
State Economic Impacts
In addition to the environmental and economic benefits described above, recycling contributes significantly to the economies of states across the U.S., as evidenced below.
- In March 2005, North Carolina issued a study, Recycling Means Business (PDF) (63 pp, 2.6MB, About PDF), on the impact of recycling on North Carolina’s economy. The study provides a snapshot of the many faces of North Carolina’s recycling industry, featuring 42 recycling companies in the state.
- Employment Trends in North Carolina’s Recycling Industry (PDF) (72 pp, 819K, About PDF) quantifies the impact of recycling on jobs in North Carolina.
- The South Carolina Recycling Market Development Advisory Council released a study in 2006, The Economic Impact of the Recycling Industry in South Carolina (63 pp, 472K, About PDF), indicating that the recycling industry creates an estimated $6.5 billion total economic impact in the state’s economy.
- The state of Florida hosts nearly 3,700 recycling and reuse establishments, employing approximately 32,000 people, generating an annual payroll of $765 million and netting $4.4 billion in annual revenues.1
- Recycling nets the following economic benefits in the state of Pennsylvania in 2009:2
- Recycling and Reuse Establishments: 3,803
- Recycling and Reuse Employment: 52,316 jobs
- Annual Sales Receipts: $20.6 billion
- Annual Payroll: $2.2 billion
- U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study (REI), Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, EPA530-F-02-005, January 2002.
- Recycling for the Future [no longer available]. White House Task Force on Greening the Government Through Waste Prevention and Recycling, November 1998.
- Recycling Facts [no longer available]. Illinois Recycling Association. “Background on Plastics and Resource Conservation,” American Plastics Council. June 1999.
1 “Florida Recycling Economic Study,” R. W. Beck, Inc. for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, July 2001.
2 “Economic Benefits of Recycling,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.