Recycling Bonanza

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Recycling Bonanza

Global demand for copper, aluminum, steel, paper, and a whole range of other commodities is soaring as countries like China modernize their economies.  As the rapid growth in demand outstrips the short-term increase in supply, prices have escalated.  While this appears to be bad news for consumers in the U.S. and around the globe who face higher prices, it represents an enormous opportunity for producers of such commodities — and it will actually lead to lower prices for commodities in the long term.

New material technologies, such as nanotech, promise to dramatically improve the long-term efficiency of manufacturing.  These will enable us to produce far more output with each unit of energy and raw material.  However, until those technologies become commercially viable, the best solution is to intelligently recycle products, where feasible.

Consider the savings in energy consumption, cited by BusinessWeek,1 that occur when materials are recycled rather than made from scratch:

  • Recycled plastic uses 80 percent less energy.
  • Recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy.
  • Recycled iron and steel use 74 percent less energy.
  • Recycled paper uses 64 percent less energy.
  • Recycled glass uses 40 percent less energy.

These savings, and the difficulty of finding and extracting new deposits of gold, copper, silver, and other rare materials, provide sound economic reasons for the surge in recycling.  At the same time, this trend is also being propelled by a powerful non-economic force:  growing resistance to the construction of new landfills in many communities.  As a result of this and the filling up of older facilities, the number of active landfills in the U.S. has dropped, from 8,000 in 1988, to fewer than 2,000 today.

Driven by the convergence of financial incentives and a dwindling number of places to put garbage that isn't recycled, the recycling industry is taking off — and it's quickly being segmented into multiple sub-industries.

Consider just one of these segments: electronic waste, or e-waste.  Computers, monitors, printers, fax machines, televisions, VCRs, and DVD players quickly become obsolete as each new generation of mature technologies becomes available or the next new technology hits the market.  Each day, hundreds of thousands of the old devices end up in landfills, where they can leak mercury, lead, and other toxins into the surrounding soil and groundwater.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency report Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics,

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