From Waste to Jobs: Growing California's Economy through Recycling

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Recycling is one of the most common of all environmental activities, and it’s also a great way to save natural resources. Recycling keeps useful materials out of landfills and incinerators, and using recovered materials to make new products and packages saves energy, water, and resources such as trees and metal ores.

Recycling reduces global warming pollution, too. A 2011 report prepared by the Tellus Institute, More Jobs, Less Pollution, found that if we can increase the national recycling rate to 75% by 2030, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 515 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent, which is equal to shutting down about 72 coal-fired power plants or taking 50 million cars off the road.

And recycling helps the economy as well as the environment – recycling is more labor-intensive than landfilling or incineration, which means that building the recycling industry is a way to create more jobs. The 2011 Tellus report found that moving from the current 34% national recycling rate to a 75% national recycling rate would create 1.5 million new jobs.

California is already a national recycling leader, with a 2010 recycling rate of just under 50%. Yet California still sends half of our solid waste to landfills or incinerators, missing the opportunity to recover valuable material resources. In 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB341, which requires that “75 percent of solid waste generated be source reduced, recycled, or composted by the year 2020.” In order to better understand the economic potential of increasing recycling in California to 75%, NRDC commissioned the Tellus Institute to create a report, From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California, which was released today.

The NRDC report finds that more than 110,000 jobs could be created as a result of California’s goal to recycle 75% of its solid waste by 2020. Meeting the 75% recycling goal would create more than 34,000 jobs in materials collection, 26,000 jobs in materials processing, and 56,000 jobs in manufacturing using the recovered materials. And in addition to the 110,000 jobs directly created, there would be an additional 38,600 indirect jobs created in sectors providing equipment and services to recycling-related businesses as well as induced jobs from additional spending by the new employees.

Improved recycling of plastic is especially important, both in terms of jobs and of environmental benefits. 29,000 new jobs can be created from plastic recycling alone, and recycling this plastic can help reduce the amount of the material that ends up in rivers, beaches, and oceans.

In order to achieve the 75% recycling goal, California will need to recycle an additional 23 million tons of waste in 2020, which means creating additional policies and infrastructure to help increase recycling. And if we want to ensure that as many of these jobs as possible end up in California, we need to develop incentives and policies that help keep new infrastructure, and the associated new jobs, in-state. CalRecycle is currently developing recommendations for lawmakers to achieve the 75% target, including recommendations on expanding recycling facilities and markets; hopefully these recommendations will help guide these needed incentives and policy shifts. A critical piece of the strategy will be enacting and expanding product stewardship or extended producer responsibility programs that require producers of packaging to help support expansion of recycling infrastructure.

Working toward achieving California’s recycling goal will benefit the environment, and it is also a great opportunity for the state to revitalize its economy by recapturing the value of recyclable materials and by creating green jobs.  Throwing out useful materials like plastic, paper and metals is like throwing out money; by reconceptualizing waste as materials, and optimizing how materials are managed for the greatest utility, we can grow California’s green economy while helping preserve our natural environment.

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