The potency of recycling in the economic sector today

As Little Timmy came from school one day, he couldn’t find his old green fleece sweater, his blue cardigan nor his pair of grey socks. After scouring his entire room, he went to ask his nanny. She was sitting by the fireplace knitting something. He noticed the wool colour: green, blue and grey. He realized what had happened. He asked her, “Nanny! Why are you doing this to me? Don’t you know how much I loved that cardigan?” In reply, she said something that made him cry: “I’m reusing the fabric from your old clothes to make you a brand new sweater for the winter.”

For better or for worse, recycling deeply impacts our lives. For countless millennia, people have used recycling, the process of converting objects into reusable material, in their everyday lives. Before, people mostly recycled because they could not afford to buy new things, or because at the time money was not invented yet. Beginning in the 1980s it began to go large-scale, as people believed that landfill space was running out and recycling was their only hope. The movement continued to gain steam when global warming and environment activists had their voices heard. Now, most people in developed countries have access to recycling. The recycling industry has reached millions of dollars in both revenue and investments nationally. Still, there are skeptics about whether the environment benefits compensate for the costs. Nonetheless, recycling is the way to go. Not only is it environmentally beneficial, recycling has potential to grow even further economically as well as to improve and make the Earth a greener planet; it is a sector worth investing in.

When recycling became large-scale, it was assumed that it would be environmentally friendly. After all, what is better than saving landfill space and reusing material at the same time? But the idea was met with acrimony. People actually started calculating landfill space, and concluded that it would take at least 20 years for the current ones to fill (Hutchinson 2008). Also, it is not as all raw materials are running out. It is ridiculous to think that we will encounter a glass crisis due to the lack of sand (Sealey 2012, Hutchinson 2008).

The question remains: what are the environmental benefits of recycling? We must look at this from a sustainability point of view. It takes energy to extract raw elements from the ground, some more than others. Indeed, extracting ores from the ground is a tedious task. Digging, drilling, extracting, purifying and manufacturing does not come without price or energy. Hutchinson says that making cans from recycled aluminum uses 4% of the energy needed to make cans from virgin materials (2008). Therefore, if manufacturing one ton of cans from virgin materials requires 200 BTU, and each BTU costs 15 dollars, then by recycling, we would’ve saved $2880 in costs and 192 BTU, contributing to extra money and less environmental emissions. Also, imagine how much emissions we save if each BTU produces 1000 ppt of methane, 2300 ppt of carbon dioxide, and 500 ppt of other noxious chemicals… Other materials – like paper, plastic and glass – follow the trend, although they don’t save as much energy. So, with the transportation and fluctuating prices of material, there is a considerable amount of energy saved in recycling, provided that they don’t “down-cycle” (the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality) the products that can be recycled no further (Hutchinson 2008).

Also, with the recent improvements in technology, recycling has become more convenient and efficient. One of these changes occurs in the way we collect recyclables. Before, specialized recyclable collectors arrive at your home to pick up their respective material and ship them to the recycling facility, where they are filtered, washed and melted; before being transformed into a different product. Perforce, most places require a specific bin for each recyclable. This process can be ridiculously confusing to consumers who just want to be a Good Samaritan and rid themselves of their recyclables. Studies show that a primary reason why people choose not to recycle is the hassle: most places have separate bins for paper, bottles and cans – dual-stream recycling (Hutchinson 2008). They are collected separately, shipped separately and dealt with separately. Instead of agonizing to get it right, people oftentimes throw recyclables in the trash. It also costs less to manage trash than recyclables in some cities (Sealey 2012). However, after a switch to single-stream (where paper is not separated) recycling, where the recyclables are all transformed in one place, recycling in San Francisco increased by up to 25% (Hutchinson 2008). People are now allowed to go happy-go-lucky and throw any recyclable in the blue bin without worry. They are much more expensive, but the improved results justify the investment. With the development of mechanical sorting, and the growing implementation of single-stream recycling, recycling becomes much more convenient and easier, leading to increased revenues for the future.

Recycling has a clear impact on today’s economy, making it a relevant matter today. In the United States, over 1.1 million individuals work in this industry, mounting to 37 billion dollars in annual payroll (Sealey 2012). In Canada, over 85% of households have access to recycling, and up to 97% of those people use it (Statistics Canada). Most facilities cost millions to create and manage, and cities like Vancouver spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year (Pynn 2012) on collecting and maintenance. Fortunately, over 91% of people who have recycling access use the expensive program (Statistics Canada). Also, the recycling industry directly relies on the market: to survive, the revenue must be greater than the costs. Prices are volatile: from 1994-1996, the price of recyclables went from 33 dollars a ton to 170 dollars, and then back to 40 dollars a ton (Hutchinson 2008). However, what is more alarming is the rate at which raw material prices are going. From food to metals to oil, prices are rising drastically. I still miss the days where a dozen eggs cost 99 cents and the price of gas in Vermont was under 2 dollars a gallon. With no indication that the prices will drop in the near future, recycling can gain steam simply because of the competitive prices. In Vancouver, the city spends 190 million dollars a year on collecting, transporting and processing materials (Pynn 2012). The total value of recycled materials reached 53 million dollars a year (Pynn 2012). Fortunately, the 53 million represents the price of the raw recycled material. Once manufactured, the recycled products can generate enough revenue to cover the costs. Recycled products are invariably higher than normal products. With this kind of market, recycling attracts entrepreneurs to invest in different types of recycling.

One of the areas that interests Vancouver entrepreneurs is the recycling of electronics. Teck Resources is one of them. For over century, Teck has operated as a mining company in the West of Canada, having its headquarters in Vancouver. Conscious of its responsibilities towards the environment, Teck has been investing in electronic recyclables, or e-waste (Teck 2012). They give life to the materials of life-expended electronics, like laptops or television sets. The recycled metals appeared at many unexpected places, notably in the medals of the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics. It was the first Olympics/Paralympics where the medals contained recycled gold, silver and copper from e-waste, more specifically from the circuit boards of laptops (Teck 2012). Currently, Teck has invested another $210 million in the expansion of e-waste management (Pynn 2012). Some of the materials are sent downstream (making objects less valuable than the original, from laptop to tin can), while the rest are fed to the smelters and separated into metals and chemicals (Pynn 2012). This novel approach attracts investors, ensuring the survival of this initiative for the next few years.

With the help of recycling, the world saves energy, resources, generates revenue, and creates jobs. The economics involved are two-fold: it allows the manufacturing of products for a competitive price and its product value is worth more. Hence, most cities of first-world countries have a high norm for recycling, making non-believers a distant minority. Its scope continues to increase, as the list of recyclables becomes multifarious due to the recent development of technologies. Nonetheless, the extant skeptics remain stoic and hostile to this mindset. Adversity is inevitable, but with the current trends of the economy, all indications support the thriving of this large-scale industry.  The next step is to manage third-world recycling issues and diminish waste in the poorest parts of the country.

By,

Houji Yao

References:

Hutchinson, A. (2008, November 13). Recycling Statistics - Is Recycling Worth It - Popular Mechanics. Automotive Care, Home Improvement, Tools, DIY Tips - Popular Mechanics. Retrieved October 6, 2012, from http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/recycling/4291566

Pynn, L. (2012, September 29). Recycling creates economic opportunity. Vancouver Sun | Latest Breaking News | Business | Sports | Canada Daily News. Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Recycling+creates+economic+opportunity/7319991/story.html

Sealey, G. (2012, March 8). Is Recycling Worth the Trouble, Cost? - ABC News. ABCNews.com - Breaking News, Latest News & Top Video News - ABC News. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=91824&page=1

Table 2 Households that had access to and used recycling programs, by province, 2006 . (2008, November 21). Statistics Canada: Canada's national statistical agency / Statistique Canada : Organisme statistique national du Canada. Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/16-002-x/2007001/tables/5008064-eng.htm

Teck: Products & Services - eRecycling. (2012). Teck: Mining Company - Home. Retrieved October 13, 2012, from http://www.teck.com/Generic.aspx?PAGE=Teck+Site%2fResponsibility+Pages%2fRecycling&portalName=tc

Xu, Stephanie. [Photograph of a student recycling].  (2012). The Ubyssey, Vancouver. Retrieved October 8, 2012 from http://cdn.ubyssey.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/wpid-recycling-facility_20120925_Stephanie-Xu.jpg