Communities have operated recycling programs nationwide for decades, but more needs to be known about how well they create end markets for the materials they gather and the overall economic impact the programs create. That situation led AMERIPEN—American Institute for Packaging and the Environment to investigate, leading to the recent release of a study, Economic Impact of State Recycling Market Development: 1990–2023.
The study, conducted by John Dunham & Associates (JDA), is the first in-depth look into initiatives that states have taken over the past 30 years to create or expand markets for recycled materials, AMERIPEN says.
JDA’s analysis shows that recycling market centers have helped generate nearly 260,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs over the past 33 years, AMERIPEN says. That number nearly quadruples to 990,000 FTE jobs when state supplier data and other impacts are included. And businesses have paid wages and benefits totaling nearly $22.2 billion, while generating economic activity of over $89.5 billion, according to AMERIPEN.
Dan Felton, AMERIPEN executive director, says the study sheds light on the valuable work that has been done to grow markets for recycled materials.
“We’re clearly seeing that when state centers collaborate with industry to drive resources to areas of need, everyone can collectively benefit,” Felton said in a statement.
About the Study
One major development over the years has been the creation of recycling market development centers, says Kyla Fisher, program director for AMERIPEN.
“These programs connect and match state resources, usually environmental and commerce departments, with private sector parties to advance recycling success,” Fisher said in Waste Today.
Nationwide, seven state-specific programs and two regional collaboratives are in operation, translating into 19 states that engage in some type of development program, she adds. The work of such centers includes supporting businesses that use recycled materials and identifying and overcoming barriers to the growth of recycling markets.
The study evaluated 24 recycling-dependent industries over the past three decades, predominately emphasizing packaging and related materials.
“After establishing the breakdown of recyclable materials to review, the study then dug into the patterns across these materials within the 19 different states that either have their own development program or are part of a regional effort—versus states that did not have any documented recycling market development programs,” according to AMERIPEN.
The study concludes that recycling market centers have a beneficial effect on recycling-related industries in a state’s economy. State programs that assist businesses—such as grants, tax forgiveness, technical services, and research and development—can help encourage recycling-dependent businesses to locate in specific areas, it adds.
More Research Needed
John Dunham, managing partner of JDA, notes that readers and state agencies should see the report as a steppingstone toward further assessment.
“Additional studies could drill down even further,” Dunham said in Waste Management Magazine. “And it is an ideal time to encourage engagement by state and federal agencies to explore how we can better assess these programs to evaluate best practices, as well as demonstrate their value.”
The full study includes an in-depth analysis of material sectors and case studies from active development centers. The examined programs included South Carolina, which has an independent state center but is also part of a regional system, and Michigan.
Anna DeLage, recycling market development manager at the South Carolina Department of Commerce, says the report should help spread the word about the importance of market development. Consumers are looking to see if recycling is working in their communities, and the AMERIPEN study offers evidence that programs work, she says during an October 24 online seminar about the study.
“We need to shout this from the rooftops,” she also says.
During the same online seminar, Dunham points out that policymakers and managers of recycling programs must understand that end markets are critical. “I am an economist, so I think about things in terms of business and markets,” he says, adding that regulations and programs must do more than simply collect materials. “If there is not somebody to use the stuff that is being produced from the recycling stream, all you have done is waste a lot of money creating little chunks of things that are going to go into the landfill.”
DeLage and Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, agree that end markets are critical, as well as ensuring local funding sources, so communities can succeed.
“We need more people doing this work so we can create a web of markets across states,” Flechter says. “Communities have operated recycling programs nationwide for decades, but more needs to be known about how well they and other stakeholders create end markets.”
The report should help those efforts, especially as more states develop extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations, Felton says.
“We hope that the study will encourage the development of even more recycling market centers across the country, as well as lead to more dialogue on recycling market development and the role of these centers within the current discussions on packaging producer responsibility, also referred to as EPR for packaging,” he said in a statement.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.