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Recycling and Reclamation Workers


The profession of recycling and reclamation is relatively recent. Starting in the 1970s, when many environmental laws were enacted, people became interested in conserving the environment and preserving its resources through activities such as recycling. It was only in the 1980s and early 1990s that states begin setting recycling goals, creating the need for recycling and reclamation workers. Prior to that time, private citizen groups or industry led most recycling efforts, so there was little need for municipal recycling and reclamation workers.

Early recycling was usually driven by economic forces. For example, during the Great Depression, groups such as the Boy Scouts as well as individuals held newspaper drives, turning the newspapers over to a recycler. The recycler paid a minimal amount for the collection of the newspapers and then generally sold the newspaper to industry, which recycled or otherwise reused the newspaper. During World War II, shortages in raw materials prompted citizens to hold drives for aluminum, rubber, paper, and scrap metal, to support the war; this time the spirit of recycling was patriotic as well as economic.

When there were no shortages of materials, governments did not focus on how people disposed of waste. There was relatively little waste because municipalities had been dumping, burning, burying, or otherwise disposing of residents' waste for years with few consequences. In 1898, New York City opened the first garbage-sorting plant in the United States, recycling some of its trash. In the early 1900s, the first aluminum recycling plants were built in Chicago and Cleveland. The League of Women Voters reported that by the 1920s, about 70 percent of U.S. cities had limited recycling programs.

By 1960, the United States recycled about 7 percent of its municipal waste, but by the mid-1960s, the federal government took greater interest in municipal waste-handling methods. Part of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 granted money for states to develop waste-handling programs. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1970 and 1976 amendments defined types of municipal solid waste (MSW) and spelled out minimum standards for waste handling.

State and federal governments, such as branches of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were the earliest to hire people who specialized in recycling. These recycling experts usually advised local governments on how to develop their own programs.

More states began to set recycling goals in the 1990s, and by 1998, all but six states had set formal recycling goals. These goals are generally stated in terms of the percentage of waste to be diverted from ending up in a landfill. Most states set goals between 20 and 50 percent. Many state governments offered grants to counties to fund new recycling programs, increasing the demand for full-time recycling workers. Initially, only the most populous counties qualified for the grants to afford a recycling program because they could divert the highest volume from landfills. In a November 2019 report, the EPA indicated that Americans generated about 268 million tons of waste in 2017, of which nearly 35 percent was recycled and composted. In other words, on average, each person in the United States recycled and composted about 1.58 pounds of the nearly 4.51 pounds of waste they generated every day.

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