Zero Waste Programs Create Green Jobs and a Strong Local Economy
Zero Waste programs can create jobs in your community—whether you’re in a large or small, urban or rural area. And, Zero Waste programs strengthen your economy by keeping dollars and materials circulating through your region. Here’s why everyone from small towns all the way up to the United Nations is embracing Zero Waste programs as a strategy to drive economic development.
Zero Waste Creates More Jobs Than Trash
Zero Waste programs that reuse, repair, recycle, and compost materials create more jobs than landfills and incinerators per ton of materials handled:
- Recycling creates an average of nine times more jobs than trash.
- Composting creates at least twice as many jobs as landfills and four times as many jobs as incineration facilities.
- Reuse creates as many as 30 times more jobs than landfills.
On a national level, the US recycling industry generates $117 billion in economic activity annually. According to the EPA’s 2020 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for:
- 681,000 jobs;
- $37.8 billion in wages; and
- $5.5 billion in tax revenues
This equates to 1.17 jobs for every 1,000 tons of materials recycled.
Economic Impacts of Recycling at the State Level
More than a dozen states have reports on the economic benefits and job creation from recycling within the state. Here are a few highlights and resources for more information:
- South Carolina: The state’s investment in recycling businesses has been highly successful in driving job growth—from 2006 to 2014, the economic impact nearly doubled and job growth grew 44%. Recycling in SC now accounts for $13 billion in total economic impact, pays $329 million in state and local taxes, and provides 54,121 jobs.
- Minnesota: Almost 46,000 people are directly employed by the state’s reuse sector, which annually generates more than $4 billion in gross sales, amounting to 1.6% of Minnesota’s gross domestic product and employment base.
- Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania: Recycling and reuse drive a $35 billion per year industry in these 5 states with more than 11,000 recycling and reuse businesses that employ more than 100,000 individuals and pay over $4.2 billion in wages.
Use this tool to estimate the economic impact in your state and check out this summary report on the economic impacts of recycling in various states.
The US Could Create 1.1 Million New Jobs by Recycling 75% of Our Discards
Recycling, reuse, and manufacturing jobs are critical to meeting our local, state, and national goals to create more green jobs. Recycling creates strong job growth and opportunities for entry-level and mid-level workers, and can replace jobs lost in manufacturing. Jobs in the recycling industry typically have a low barrier to entry and offer an average of over $70,000 in wages and benefits.
To learn more, check out the report “More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S.,” which details how transforming the “waste” sector into a “materials management” sector will support the economy and the environment.
Zero Waste Strengthens the Local Economy
In addition to providing jobs directly in the recycling sector, Zero Waste gives value back to the community by keeping materials—and dollars—out of the landfill. Every ton of trash that gets buried in your local landfill contains products like paper, plastic, and metal that could have been sold for recycling. That’s money that could have supported community and local businesses. The US buries over $11 billion every year in potential revenue from materials that were trashed instead of being sold for recycling.
Paper, plastic, cardboard, and other materials that are buried annually in US landfills could instead have been sold for over $11 billion, adding value back to our local and domestic economy.
Three Ways Zero Waste Creates Jobs
1. Collecting, processing, and preparing materials. Your discarded materials are picked up and then brought to processing facilities where they are sorted and prepared to sell to markets.
2. Making new products from recycled materials (remanufacturing). Your recyclables then head to paper mills, metal smelters, and plastic manufacturing facilities that use recycled materials to make new products. Compost facilities turn your discarded yard and food scraps into valuable soil amendments or energy (through the anaerobic digestion process).
3. Reuse and repair businesses that sell reclaimed products. These include antique stores, thrift stores, tailors, auto salvage yards, computer refurbishers, used book stores, and more.
Examples of Jobs from Recycling and Reuse
- Blue Star Recyclers: Electronics Recycling and Local Job Creation
Blue Star Recyclers in Colorado and Illinois is a social enterprise that employs people with autism and other developmental disabilities through electronics recycling. Blue Star has provided over 40 local jobs through its three Front Range locations and contributed $4 million in new local revenues while saving taxpayers $1.5 million. In places without permanent recycling facilities, such as Steamboat Springs in Colorado, Blue Star partners with local communities to put on annual collection events. Blue Star demonstrates how social enterprises can align environmental goals with social and fiscal contributions.
- Rebuilding Exchange: Building Materials Reuse and Job Training
Rebuilding Exchange, a social enterprise in Chicago, Illinois, was founded in 2009 to repurpose building materials and provide job training to people with barriers to employment. Since then, the organization has diverted over 9,400 tons of building materials from the landfill and created a strong local market for reclamation and reuse. Rebuilding Exchange has trained over 80 people with barriers to employment for jobs in an increasingly circular economy and serves over 16,000 customers each year with access to reclaimed building materials and educational workshops. The Rebuilding Exchange illustrates how sustainable enterprises can strengthen every facet of a community.
- Florence, Alabama: Local Recycling Program Leading the Way in Serving Rural Communities
The city of Florence, Alabama, began curbside recycling in 1988, founding one of the oldest recycling programs in the state. The recycling center in Florence is owned and operated by the city and processes about 3,300 tons of material per year from the city, nearby institutions, and surrounding rural areas. Mayor Steve Holt has noted that Florence avoided more than $1 million in landfill fees from 2009 to 2019 while bringing in revenue from the sale of materials to nearby manufacturers. The program contributes to regional jobs, including the 1,200 people employed at the aluminum recycling center Florence delivers to, and is a leading model of a recycling program that serves rural areas while supporting local economies.