How do Recycling Centers Make Money? 7 Steps to Green Profits

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It won’t come as a surprise that I think recycling is important. It helps preserve our planet and keeps valuable resources from ending up in landfills.

But have you ever asked yourself how do recycling centers make money?

Most recycling centers don’t exist as charitable ventures to save the planet. They make money by selling recycled materials to companies and people that need them.

Recycling can seem like a simple process, but a lot of work goes into it. Many people rely on the recycling industry to make a living.

In this article, I’ll discuss the business of recycling and the numerous revenue streams open to savvy recycling centers.

How Do Recycling Centers Make Money? The Business Of Recycling

Recycling centers make money by taking in unwanted, used materials and transforming them into reusable and sellable items.

Recycling is a three-step process:

  1. It starts with sorting the materials into different types.
  2. Next, the materials are cleaned (and repaired if necessary in the case of electronics, for example).
  3. Finally, the materials are either sold on or go through multiple processes (specific to the material being recycled) to get them into a state that can be reused and sold.

recycling business

7 Ways Recycling Companies Make Money

Note: All recycling stats below are courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency website (epa.gov).

Textile Recycling

Textiles recycling (including rubber and leather) accounted for around 6% of total U.S. recycling in 2018.

Recyclers make money by recycling textile materials. This includes items such as clothes, linens, and carpeting.

The recycled textiles are sold to companies who use them to create new products, such as insulation or stuffing for pillows and mattresses.

Another way recyclers can monetize your old textiles is by burning them to create electricity to sell back to the power company. This is often seen as not eco-friendly due to the smoke and other potential pollutants released into the air.

Paper Recycling

Paper is the most commonly recycled item in the U.S. and makes up around two-thirds of all recycling.

Paper recycling (including wood fiber and cardboard) is another lucrative venture for recyclers when done on a large scale. That is why most profitable paper recyclers deal with big providers of waste paper products (Amazon, Walmart, etc.) rather than the general public.

The recycled paper produced is sold to companies who use it to create new products, such as paper towels or toilet paper.

Metal Recycling

Scrap metal makes up 12.62% of all U.S. recycling and is one of the best earners for recyclers.

The recycled metal is sold to companies who use it to create new products, such as aluminum foil or stainless steel appliances.

Ferrous metals (such as iron and steel) are usually worth less than nonferrous metals (such as copper, brass, bronze, and stainless steel). With copper being the most lucrative.

There is a large international market for U.S. scrap metal. Countries such as Turkey, Taiwan, and Mexico are our biggest customers.

Plastic Recycling

Most recyclers struggle to make a decent profit from recycling plastic (this might be why less than 5% of all U.S. recycling is plastic), but some money is still to be made.

Recyclers take in items such as bottles, containers, and packaging and can turn them into various everyday products.

The problem with the plastic recycling business is the level of natural resources needed to recycle the plastic is often greater than that required to manufacture new plastic.

However, recycling plastic is still a viable option in my eyes because it helps reduce the growing worldwide plastic waste problem.

You can assist the plastic recycling process considerably if you only send plastic to the recycling center that can be recycled. If unsure what plastic can be recycled, click here to read our handy guide.

Glass Recycling

Roughly the same amount of glass as plastic is recycled in the U.S. (less than 5%).

Glass recycling, like plastic recycling, is not very profitable but essential for eco-friendly reasons (glass can take up to 4,000 years to decompose)

Recycled glass is used to make new products, such as windows or drinking glasses.

Electronic Recycling

Another way that recyclers make money is by recycling electronic materials. This includes items such as computers, cell phones, and televisions.

The precious metals used in the circuit board of these items can be very valuable if you know how to extract them.

You can read more about e-waste here.

Wood Recycling

Reclaimed wood is one of the more valuable recycled materials these days, and it can be collected from a variety of sources including old buildings, decks, sheds, and fences.

It can be sold on to sustainable furniture brands, or to make sustainable flooring or bed frames.

Bonus: Tipping Fee

The final way that recyclers make money is by charging a tipping fee.

A tipping fee is a charge paid to the recycling business for each load of waste brought in. This is often seen as a negative because it can act as a deterrent for people wanting to recycle their materials.

However, without this income, many recycling businesses would be unable to function.

Contamination Is Key To Profit

Whatever material is being recycled, the key to making the best profit is removing as much contamination as possible.

For example, a tonne of clean old Amazon delivery boxes will be worth much more than a tonne of Dominos boxes stained with grease.

The China Issue

For many years, the biggest purchaser of U.S. recycling was China.

However, there is now a strict limit on what types of recycling China will accept from other countries.

This change has sent shock waves through the industry, and the U.S. is still scrambling to find a solution.

According to the EPA, the U.S. recycling industry employed more than 1.1 million people at its peak. But these numbers are starting to dwindle as recycling businesses in the U.S. struggle to adapt to a changing market.

Play Your Part…Start a Recycling Business

With U.S. recycling in a bit of a mess, now might just be the perfect time for small recycling companies to enter the market and start recycling correctly.

Fancy helping the planet and making a few bucks along the way? Here are a few tips to get you started on your way to your new recycling business:

  • Start by collecting recycling from your friends and family.
  • Clean and sort it ready to take to a recycling business you trust.
  • Be prepared to pay a small tipping fee for each load.
  • Do in-depth research about what items you’re going to specialize in recycling.
  • Factor in all your costs and work out your expected profit.
  • Seek financial help from the government in the form of grants, etc.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Household Consignment Centers?

Household consignment centers are recycling facilities that specialize in textiles.

How Many Cans Does It Take To Make $10?

It takes around 200 cans to make you $10 at a recycling center.

How Many Plastic Bottles Does It Take To Make 100 Dollars?

In states with bottle bills, you can exchange bottles and cans for cash (usually 5-10 cents per bottle). So, assuming the higher valuation, you’d need 1,000 bottles to make $100.

The Final Word

The problem is that most U.S. recyclers don’t actually recycle their materials. They simply clean them and sell them on.

Now that China is no longer buying our recyclables, we have a big problem. We’re stuck with mountains of plastic and other materials we can’t eliminate.

This unfortunate issue means that more and more recyclable materials are ending up in landfill.

It’s time for the U.S. to start recycling its own materials. We need to invest in the infrastructure and the technology to make this happen. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with an even bigger problem.

Get In Touch

Do you sort and wash your recyclable materials before sending them to the recycling business? Or are you too busy for all that recycling and waste management hassle?

Do you know of any good recycling programs in your local area? Would you ever consider setting up a recycling program of your own? Drop me a line and let me know.

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James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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