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The industry


It has been widely claimed that 1.6 million people worldwide are active in the recycling industry, but the actual figure is likely to be many times higher. For example, it has also been estimated that, globally, around 20 million people are engaged in the informal recycling sector. Together, the recycling industry handles more than 600 million tonnes of recyclables every year.

In the USA alone, it has been calculated that well over 500,000 direct jobs are supported by the recycling industry, and that it contributes US$ 117 billion in annual economic benefit. The US industry processes more than 130 million tons of recyclables each year, including 66 million tonnes of iron and steel, 46 million tonnes of paper, 5.3 million tonnes of aluminium, 5 million tonnes of electronics, 2.5 million tonnes of post-consumer plastic, and 110 million tyres.

With an estimated annual turnover of around US$ 500 billion, the global recycling sector has already become a key driver for tomorrow’s sustainable development and for a global society now convinced that the future lies in a circular rather than in a linear economic approach. Around 10% of this turnover has been spent traditionally on new technologies, research and development which contribute to creating highly-skilled jobs and to making recycling ever more efficient and environmentally sound - something which benefits the entire planet and its people.

The recycling industry has become an integral part of modern society, not only due to its social and economic impact but also because it plays a vital role in the Earth’s future. The use of recycled materials directly translates into fewer natural resources being used and considerably less energy being consumed when compared to production processes using virgin materials.


  • Aluminium
    > 95%
  • Copper
    > 85%
  • Plastic
    > 80%
  • Paper
    > 65%
  • Steel
    > 74%
  • Zinc
    > 60%
  • Lead
    > 65%


  • Aluminium
    > 92%
  • Copper
    > 65%
  • Ferrous
    > 58%
  • Paper
    > 18%
  • Nickel
    > 90%
  • Zinc
    > 76%
  • Lead
    > 99%
  • Tin
    > 99%
  •  * Source: BIR study on the environmental benefits of recycling - 2009 edition

In 2008, BIR changed the face of the carbon emissions debate when it commissioned experts at Imperial College London to assess the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions saved as a result of using secondary raw materials, or scrap, rather than primary raw materials. Their independent conclusion was that the recycling of just seven metals and recovered paper achieved CO2 emission savings of more than 500 million tonnes - a figure on a par with the carbon dioxide impact of the global aviation industry at that time.

In 2015, this valuable exercise was updated by applying a refined, innovative methodology to just aluminium, copper and ferrous metals, as well as paper. And for the three metals alone, it emerged that carbon emission savings were substantially higher than previously thought, exceeding the total for the 2008 analysis of eight commodities. In effect, the total estimated savings in annual CO2 emissions arising from the secondary production of aluminium, copper and ferrous metals when compared to primary production are 572 million tonnes. Based on this authoritative study, BIR estimates that the savings in annual CO2 emissions through recycling activity as a whole equate to well over 1 billion tonnes per year.

BIR study on the environmental benefits of recycling - 2016 edition

A late-2019 study, conducted by the Fraunhofer Center for Economics of Materials (CEM) on behalf of German steel scrap association and BIR member BDSV, reached equally positive conclusions. Its report “Scrap Bonus: External Costs and Fair Competition in the Global Value Chains of Steelmaking” calculated that the use of steel scrap in Europe reduces the costs of climate change by up to Euro 20 billion a year - not only saving CO2 emissions compared to primary production from ores and refined mining products but also cutting other forms of environmental damage such as acidification of water, summer smog and eutrophication (when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients, thus inducing excessive growth of algae).

The CEM study found that: using one ton of recycled stainless steel scrap saves 4.3 tons of CO2 in stainless steel production; and with carbon steel, the average saving from using one ton of steel scrap is 1.67 tons of CO2

In 2018, steelworks in the EU used 93.8 million tonnes of steel scrap. If this were solely carbon steel scrap, the implied reduction in CO2 emissions of around 157 million tons is equivalent to the emissions released by car traffic in France, Great Britain and Belgium combined.


In recent years, many developed and developing countries have introduced specific recycling and environmental performance targets aimed at encouraging people to recycle. Industrial demand for recycled commodities is truly global. International trade in recycled materials plays a pivotal role in supplying the world’s mills and factories, and is instrumental in increasing the benefits offered by the industry. BIR has always advocated the free flow of recycled materials and actively monitors potential threats posed by trade restrictions and other protectionist measures.


Available today in many shapes and forms, plastics have become part our everyday life.  However, their popularity and almost endless applications present a series of challenges for the recycling industry.


Attempts by some legislators to continue to categorize and regulate recycled materials as “waste” have been particularly detrimental for the international recycling industry. BIR and its member associations have campaigned extensively at the level of the United Nations, the OECD and other supranational bodies to agree when wastes cease to be waste, and so recognize the products generated by the recycling industry.


The cost of recycling is increased by the high level of complexity in the design of many everyday products. These can incorporate a wide array of materials and components as well as, in some cases, hazardous substances. In certain instances, this makes recycling either impossible or commercially non-viable. The recycling industry is working on new solutions to tackle design complexity and BIR consistently campaigns for recycling to be taken into consideration at the earliest stages of product development.


Goods manufactured with recycled materials have to meet the same quality standards as those produced using virgin materials. BIR members contribute to providing accurate information on the optimal reliability and performance of recycled materials. Over recent years, consumers have demonstrated an increasing acceptance of recycled products and products with a substantial recycled content, actively seeking them out when making purchases.

Indeed, recycling is something that matters greatly to millions of people around the globe, as illustrated by the response to the BIR-inspired Global Recycling Day initiative. Held on March 18 2019, the second Global Recycling Day registered at least 275 media hits; an outreach exceeding 687 million people around the world; 19.4 million total online impressions on social media in the lead-up to the day; at least 25 global events; more than 42,000 Global Recycling Day web page viewings during the month in which the event took place; and engagement via Twitter from a large number of high-profile brands, including Pepsico, Nespresso, Dell and L’Oreal.