Returning to Work

Understanding the Domestic Jobs Impacts from Different Methods of Recycling Beverage Containers

This study provides an intensely detailed, scenario-specific assessment of the jobs to be gained from increased recycling of what is arguably the most common, most prolific and most sought-after of all household recyclables—beverage containers.



Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

In these times of record-breaking unemployment in the United States (to say nothing of record-breaking costs for energy and landfill space), few solutions are more urgent—and none more logical—than creating jobs out of what we are otherwise throwing away.

While disposal itself puts some people to work, primarily in the garbage collecting and landfilling industries, the level of disposal-related employment pales in comparison to the enormous jobs potential in the recycling, processing and manufacturing sectors. 

Recycling advocates have long been reporting on the significant jobs benefits of diversion over disposal. Some have focused on the jobs potential in recovering a particular product, such as tires or electronics; some have considered the jobs impacts of recovering a particular material, such as plastics or precious metals; and still others have looked at the jobs benefits of a particular recovery method, such as curbside recycling or composting.

Some of these studies take into account the vital importance of material quality, throughput quantities, processing dynamics and end-user needs—but many do not.

This study may be the first to combine all of these approaches. Commissioned by the Container Recycling Institute and conducted by independent researchers Clarissa Morawski and Jeffrey Morris, it provides an intensely detailed, scenario-specific assessment of the jobs to be gained from increased recycling of what is arguably the most common, most prolific and most sought-after of all household recyclables—beverage containers.

“Returning to Work: Understanding the Jobs Impacts From Different Methods of Recycling Beverage Containers” measures the net gains in full-time-equivalent (FTE) domestic jobs when beverage containers made of glass, aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are recovered through container deposit-return programs, curbside recycling and enhanced curbside recycling, versus landfill disposal.

This report also introduces “MIRJCalc” (Measuring the Impact of Recycling on Jobs Calculator), a user-friendly jobs estimator that calculates, on a state-by-state basis, the net impact on domestic jobs from increased recovery of aluminum cans, PET plastic bottles and glass bottles. MIRJCalc, which is accessible through the Container Recycling Institute’s website, allows the user to run specific scenarios for his or her state, or to rely on model defaults that have been carefully researched and verified. 

Among MIRJCalc’s numerous unique features is that, unlike other reports on jobs from recycling, it factors in the domestic jobs losses that will inevitably occur when recyclables replace virgin materials in manufacturing, because the jobs associated with extracting those virgin materials will no longer be needed. For example, increased use of glass cullet (recycled bottle glass) will directly impact the demand for domestic mining of aplite, silica, borate, soda ash and limestone. MIRJCalc uses this information to calculate increases, decreases and net balance in domestic jobs.

Though the losses in raw-materials mining are small compared to the net gain in recycling jobs, they are part of the comprehensive equation and thus are transparently documented in the report and accounted for in MIRJCalc.

MIRJCalc is also unique in that it recognizes the impacts on domestic jobs when material collected in domestic recycling programs is sold to overseas markets. For example, the United States exports more than 50 percent of curbside-recovered PET bottles to Asian markets (2009 figures), even as U.S.-based plastics reclaimers are operating at well below their collective capacity. MIRJCalc estimates the domestic jobs that would be created if that exported material were to stay in the United States.

MIRJCalc even takes into account the fact that, ton for ton, beverage containers represent considerably more volume (and therefore more transportation jobs) than other items collected along curbside recycling routes or in garbage-disposal trucks. This differential is favorable to the jobs calculations for both curbside and disposal, and the authors are straightforward in explaining these differences and incorporating them into MIRJCalc.

Both MIRJCalc and the larger report are based on transparent employment data collected through reports, articles and interviews with industry for each of the principal levels of the recycling and disposal processes—collection, processing, recovery and landfilling. The data are recorded as jobs impacts measured in full-time-equivalent jobs (FTEs) per 1,000 tons of throughput. 

These data, coupled with the modeling made possible by MIRJCalc, provide a remarkably clear picture—almost a road map, with alternative routes clearly marked—of the net domestic jobs impacts a community can expect from the increased recovery and recycling of beverage containers.

In particular, it shows that these impacts are determined by four fundamental factors:

 Amount of throughput (collected tonnage).

  • Collection method.
  • Material quality and residual rates at all stages of recovery.
  • End-use manufacturing (in some cases).

 Leading to these four conclusions are eight key findings. These findings, summarized here, are explained in greater detail in Section 4 and elsewhere.