Environmental Issues: Recycling


  • California has a plan to prioritize creation of new green jobs: expanding recycling is a key part of that plan.
  • Reaching California's goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020 would create at least 110,000 new recycling jobs and many more jobs in related industries.
  • Plastic and aluminum recycling have the highest potential to create new jobs.
  • Recycling 75 percent of plastic (an additional 2.12 million tons) would create 29,000 jobs -- more than any other material.
  • Landfilling and incineration generate the fewest jobs per ton of waste.
  • New recycling facilities in California are needed to process the increase in recycled materials and ensure that we take full advantage of the job creation potential of this policy.

NRDC recently commissioned Tellus Institute to assess the job creation potential of meeting the 75 percent recycling goal, and the results reported in a new publication, From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California, projected job growth in recycling jobs, thousands of processing jobs, and likely tens of thousands of indirect jobs that would result from achieving the recycling goal. In order to realize the economic benefits of increasing recycling, California must enact policies and incentives to retain more of those recovered materials in state for processing and use in manufacturing.

Just half of California's waste is currently reduced, recycled or composted. The rest winds up in landfills or is incinerated, and the amount of total waste in the state is steadily increasing. In 2010, California's waste stream was 72.8 million tons. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) estimates that by 2020 the state will produce 80 million tons of waste annually.

For this study, Tellus used the national job production factors established for its 2011 report, More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S., to estimate economic activity and job creation through recycling and composting, and combined these with California-specific data on waste generation. The report findings are remarkable:

  • Recycling 75 percent of plastic (which amounts to an additional 2.12 million tons) would create 29,000 jobs; this surpasses job creation related to any other material.
  • Achieving 75 percent recycling by 2020 requires recycling an additional 23 million tons of discarded material, which has the potential to create at least 110,000 additional recycling jobs. Thirty-one percent of these jobs are estimated to be in materials collection, 24 percent in materials processing and 45 percent in manufacturing using recovered materials.
  • These figures do not include estimates for 38,600 additional indirect jobs that would be created in sectors that will provide equipment and services to recycling-related businesses or induced jobs from additional spending by the new employees.

Retaining the job growth spurred by California's goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020 will require California's infrastructure to grow to collect and process those materials, and use them in in-state manufacturing facilities. According to CalRecycle, in 2012, almost 20 million tons of recycled materials were exported by sea from California's ports, though it is unclear exactly how much of that waste originated in California. Much of the higher-level processing of bulk or baled materials, such as paper, plastic, and metals, has been taking place in China and South Asia.

New recycling standards give California a moment of opportunity -- one in which development of new processing and manufacturing facilities will allow the state to reap the economic benefits of the program, just as it offers direct environmental benefits to California's cities, streams, forests, and aquatic ecosystems.

last revised 3/10/2014

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