Recycling is not a modern industry. It has been in practice since humankind first learned to smelt copper (around 9,000 BC, at best estimates) when melting and reforming a broken tool was far simpler than processing the ore for a new one.
Today recycling companies are part of a sophisticated worldwide commodity sector driven by basic supply and demand. Currently about 45% of the world’s annual production of steel, over 40% of the world’s copper production, and about 33% of the world’s aluminum is produced from recycled material. Canadian recyclers process between 16 and 18 million tonnes of scrap metal each year. Metals still make up the largest part of the recycling market, but new materials like electronics are gaining ground.
Scrap materials are not waste. Waste is a problem, but recyclable material is a resource. Governments and policy makers around the world continue to make the fundamental error of classifying recyclable material as waste. Scrap is a commodity manufactured by scrap processors that meets internationally recognized specifications. This material has value to processors and consumers, so it is not discarded or disposed. Defining recycled material as waste creates undue regulations in the transportation, trade, and processing of these materials.
Recycling used materials and products is paramount for Canadian business and the economy. Research has shown the recycling industry creates 10 times more employment and revenue than the waste industry. An informal survey by CARI of the Canadian recycling industry concluded it directly employs approximately 34,000 Canadian workers, and indirectly creates jobs for approximately 85,000 Canadians. In 2010 Canadian recyclers exported approximately 5.9 million tonnes of metal, valued at $3.6 billion (CAD). Studies from Europe, the U.S. and Canada all show the same results: the recycling industry generates jobs and boosts the economy. Using recycled material helps manufacturers reduce production costs and makes them more competitive. The industry drives the innovation of new technologies and products, which is vital to economic growth.
A 2011 Earnings Jobs & Innovation Report produced by the European Environment Agency concluded that the importance of the recycling industry to the European economy was continuing to increase despite the world economic downturn. As in Canada and the U.S., jobs generated directly by the recycling industry range from low- to high-skill and often pay above minimum wage. The EEA report found that employment related to recycling was also steadily increasing, and that recycling a tonne of waste “will pay $101 (USD) more in salaries and wages than disposing of it in a landfill.
Recycling is sustainable development; recycling used materials and products reduces greenhouse gases, uses significantly less energy, maximizes the use of finite natural resources, and diverts material from landfills. Recycled metals offer particular environmental benefits compared to mining virgin material, and because metals do not degrade during the recycling process, they are infinitely recyclable.
Designing and manufacturing products that can be safely and efficiently recycled at the end of their useful lives involves selecting materials that are already recycled (creating the necessary market demand) and that are recyclable. Design for Recycling means reducing the number of different materials in a product, examining how parts are joined, and avoiding parts that combine incompatible materials (such as plastics and metals), or ensuring these different materials are easy to separate. It means eliminating hazardous and toxic material wherever possible, marking the components, and anticipating a product’s disassembly and parts removal.
Manufacturers should be designing products that can be recycled safely and economically, using existing recycling technologies and methods. Removing toxic or hazardous materials and increasing a product’s recyclable materials will increase recyclability and limit a product’s potential waste. Programs like the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries’ Design for Recycling® award are working to promote this idea.
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