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About Recycling


The multi-billion dollar worldwide recycling industry performs a vital social and environmental function. The industry has no peer in terms of conserving the world's resources while the various stages of the recycling process provide employment for millions of people all around the world.

Using skills honed over many centuries, recyclers collect products that have reached the end of their useful lives and then transform them into highly valuable secondary raw materials that can be fed back into the manufacturing process. These secondary materials have to conform to critical specifications laid down by consumers, who include the world's leading steelmakers, foundries and paper/board manufacturers. If it were not for the recycling industry's professionalism, expertise and large-scale investment, a substantial proportion of these end-of-life goods would be consigned to landfill and the valuable materials they contained would be lost to the production cycle for ever. Furthermore, some potentially useful materials would become hazards rather than being retained as a resource.


The creation of secondary raw materials via the recycling route also expends far less energy than production based on primary raw materials. Recycling affords the following energy savings compared to this primary route:

Steel 74%
Aluminium 95%
Copper 85%
Lead 65%
Paper 64%
Plastics 80%

Furthermore, it has been calculated that producing paper via the recycling route entails 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution. Meanwhile, producing steel from scrap means 86% less air pollution.

The recycling industry's contribution to protecting the environment would not be possible without its massive expenditure on often highly sophisticated plant, machinery and equipment. Indeed, it has been calculated that the industry - which comprises a large proportion of privately-owned enterprises - invests around US$ 20 billion each year on new equipment and research & development.

Recycling is as old as humanity itself and may well have been born when a stone age hunter splintered his flint axe and realised that the fragments would make excellent arrowheads. It truly came into its own with the industrial revolution when redundant ferrous and non-ferrous metals became standard feedstock for the metallurgical industries. Furthermore, it was found that recovered paper could be reduced to its original pulp form and so made into new paper.

Recycling may have been breathing new life into obsolete products and materials for thousands of years but conservation of the planet's resources has become a particularly high-profile issue over recent decades. Some of this attention has focused on, for example, how to increase demand for products with a recycled content and how to design new products with their future recycling in mind. The recycling industry is not responsible for the initial design of the products they recover and yet, thanks to its experience and expertise in this area, it has been instrumental in devising innovative recycling solutions. At the same time, the industry has consistently argued in favour of recycling being taken into account at earliest stage of a product's development.

The influence of the recycling industry has extended into many other areas of critical commercial, environmental and social importance - such as radioactivity in scrap. At United Nations level, for example, the industry has promoted a logical system to encourage co-operation between all those forced to deal with this potential problem, including smelters, recycling operators, governments and disposers of radioactive residues.

BIR and its affiliated organisations have led the recycling industry's response to a vast range of new legislation covering everything from end-of-life vehicles and waste electrical and electronic equipment, to waste shipment regulations. The legislative burden imposed on the recycling industry has become far heavier over recent years, with some of the new rules and regulations appearing to be detrimental to recycling as a whole. Particularly problematical has been the decision by some legislators to regard recyclables as "waste" rather than as valuable secondary raw materials for which consuming industries are prepared to pay a market price. Indeed, definition of recyclables as "waste" has threatened to hinder the international trade in this indispensable commodity.

All countries with industrial production capacity have a need to consume raw materials and so demand for recycled commodities is truly global. International trade in secondary materials is necessary to supply steelworks, foundries, paper mills, textiles industry and rubber etc. with feedstock material for further environmentally sound production. As the focus of industrial production shifts away from industrialised nations towards the developing world, so there is also a shift in flows of secondary raw materials. Today, for example, huge volumes of scrap metal recovered from end-of-life products in the Western World are being shipped to China and other, rapidly-industrialising countries in Asia.

In its discussions with the United Nations, the OECD and other supra-national bodies, world recycling body BIR and its various member federations and associations have battled over many years to remove the "waste" label from its products. In addition, BIR has always strongly advocated the free flow of secondary material between nations and, by mutual efforts, has succeeded in breaking down many trade barriers. The organisation has had to remain vigilant to the constant threat posed by import and export restrictions as well as other protectionist measures. In recent times, for example, BIR and the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) have played a pivotal role in smoothing the flow of recyclables to China by working with the nation's regulators to create a workable registration regime for overseas exporters to the country.

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