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Neil Seldman is president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, DC, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps communities find local solutions for sustainable development.
The US recycling industry has generated more than a million jobs a figure that is expected to double as the demand for recycled materials continues to grow in the industrial and agricultural sectors. A wide variety of recycling, refurbishing, and repurposing programs across the country not only create jobs but also save taxpayers money and generate other significant economic benefits for local communities. One in particular, the privately owned building-materials salvage company Urban Ore in Berkeley, California, has redefined what is possible in the reclamation industry and has become a model for reuse stores around the world.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. recycling movement benefitted from the decentralized nature of our government. With 10,000 local governments each in charge of their own solid waste, it was possible for experimentation and sharing successful approaches across the country. Today in the midst of the Great Recession [2012], decentralized recycling is proving its worth to the country once again. The recycling industry has created well over 1 million jobs and is projected to add another million jobs as recycling levels continue to divert more and more material to industry and agriculture. The level of experimentation continues. The following stories introduce just a fraction of the new job creating and job sustaining endeavors from around the U.S.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, a mattress recycling and refurbishing enterprise started up in late June [2012]. Twenty workers will process 100,000 mattresses and box springs annually. This will reduce transfer station and landfill costs, while making good end products available to consumers at pennies on the dollar compared to new mattresses from formal retail stores. The plant is owned by the Greater Bridgeport Community Development Corporation, which used a $100,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to leverage additional capital.
Austin [Texas] just released an extraordinary business plan for resource recovery that will guide the city to 90 percent diversion of discarded materials by 2020.
Model Programs
An array of refurbishing operations in Eugene, Oregon including mattresses, automobiles, appliances, computers and furniture sell through 11 outlet stores run by Saint Vincent de Paul (SVDP). It is estimated these operations have helped lower the cost of living in Eugene by 3 percent. SVDP’s total operations employ over 400 workers at living wages plus health insurance. SVDP also manufacturers products made from window glass and fire starters made from old crayons. Since the great recession of 2008, SVDP has hired over 100 new workers and raised wages.
In Reading, Pennsylvania, the new administration has hired its own workers at union wage and benefit levels to manage the city’s recycling program. There are 10 new jobs and the city is expecting to save $300,000. Further, by controlling its own materials, Reading can direct these resources to companies that will locate manufacturing plants in the city. Reading will be the site of the first U.S. plant that uses 40 tons/day recycled high grade paper and recycled cotton to produce stationery, copy paper, envelopes and

file folders for local and regional markets. The Greys Paper Recycling Industries plant will create 100 jobs at $14/hour, plus an additional 20 jobs in distribution and warehousing.
United Community Services, the city’s workforce development agent, will identify, screen and recruit workers. Mayor Vaughn Spencer is introducing additional creative ways to use raw available materials for sustainable economic growth.
In Alachua County, Florida, a 40-acre Resource Recovery Park has been created for recycling and composting companies. Similarly, an industrial park for these types of companies is being developed in Austin, Texas. Austin just released an extraordinary business plan for resource recovery that will guide the city to 90 percent diversion of discarded materials by 2020. The report will save cities seeking to replicate these goals hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
Urban Agriculture
In Poughkeepsie, New York, the city is providing 4 acres to Greenway, Inc., a composting company, which will create the foundation for an intensive urban agriculture sector. Urban agriculture is essential for sustainable cities. David Crockett, director of the Office of Sustainability in Chattanooga, reports that if just 10 percent of the food eaten in the city were grown in the city, it would make a $1 billion impact on the local economy.
Urban Ore has served as a model for large and small reuse stores all over the world.
In Atlanta, urban agriculture is making considerable progress. Biponica, Inc. has produced two grow facilities at Park Department outdoor centers which grow fish using algae and duck weed as feed, and vegetables from the nutrients in fish excretions. Elemental Impact has established the downtown Zero Waste Zone to segregate organic waste for composting. This also makes it easier to recycle nonorganic discarded materials. Elemental Impact is also working with the city’s airport, the busiest in the U.S., to capture back of the house and concourse organic waste, as well as the plastic packages used to deliver food to the facility. Elemental Impact is now working closely with the National Restaurant Association to establish these zones in many U.S. cities.
Reuse and Niche Recycling