President Joe Biden recently declared it a top priority of his administration to remedy supply chain problems that are exacerbating shortages of goods around the country.
As part of the solution for shortages for everything from toasters to sneakers to bedroom furniture, he called for investing in manufacturing while “strengthening our ability to make more goods, from the beginning to end, right here in America.”
One sure-fire way to build more here at home while also alleviating a portion of the current shortages is to crank up recycling.
At least some of the shortages can be traced to trouble acquiring the necessary precursors for manufacturers that generally have two ways to get the materials they need. They can use so-called virgin materials – previously unused materials such as copper, aluminum, lead, zinc, iron, and other resources extracted from the earth. Or they can employ recycled materials that have been previously used in other products and recycled to give them new life.
Recyclers manufacture commodity-grade recyclable metals, paper, plastics, glass, and rubber as feedstock for the production of new materials and goods. During the worst of the pandemic, the recycling industry helped keep America’s manufacturing lines open to produce the critical goods required for the COVID-19 response and post-pandemic recovery.
Recycled metals, paper, and plastics feed U.S. manufacturing operations that produce the rebar, wiring, tubing, packaging, and other key materials needed for everything from the construction of roads and bridges to new hospitals and homes.
Americans are most familiar with the environmental benefits of steering materials into the recycling stream versus landfills or incinerators and dramatically reducing our carbon footprint. Recycled commodities annually save the equivalent of nearly 400 million tons of carbon dioxide – equal to the energy use of 48 million homes for one year.
But as the EPA notes, recycling’s economic advantages are critical — and they can be leveraged to mitigate shortages of goods. Recycling is aimed at “increasing economic security by tapping a domestic source of materials” and recycling is “supporting American manufacturing and conserves valuable resources,” the EPA notes.
The U.S. Geological Survey also stresses the economic benefits of recycling.
“Recycled iron and steel scrap is a vital raw material for the production of new steel and cast iron products,” the U.S. Geological Survey reported. “The steel and foundry industries in the United States have been structured to recycle scrap and, as a result, are highly dependent upon scrap.”
Similarly, the federal agency also said the use of recycled aluminum is essential for U.S. manufacturing. “Aluminum recovery from scrap (recycling) has become an important component of the aluminum industry,” which provides materials to a range of manufacturers. In 2020, the amount of aluminum recovered in the United States was about 3.2 million tons, with 53 percent generated during the fabrication of products and 47 percent from discarded aluminum products, such as soda cans and automobiles.
Consumer recycling accounts for just 20 percent of total recycling in the United States, with large commercial-level recycling predominant. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous recycling bins should serve as a constant curbside reminder of just how essential recycling is to manufacturing in the U.S. and that more recycling can only help the nation head off future goods shortages.