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The future faces of recycling

Recorra's business development specialist Sioned Thomas (29) says the future is bright for new recycling talent.

Much has changed since Recycling International started reporting on industry events 25 years ago. Let’s take a moment to consider the faces staring back at us from the crowd.

With recycling so varied around the world, it’s hard to find comprehensive global employment data. One of the leading markets, the US, boasts an estimated workforce of 480 500 people covering various roles at around 24 500 recycling companies. Analysts anticipate the work force will grow by about 4% year-on-year.

Growth drivers are said to be an increased legislative focus on sustainability, better recycling awareness amongst the public and advancements in technology.

The last factor, in particular, is attracting new engineering talent to the recycling sector. Drawbacks, on the other hand, are said to be relatively low wages for manual labour, an unstable job environment due to volatile market conditions and challenging working conditions (physical labour, unfavourable working times, irregular shifts, safety concerns etc.).

The number of US recycling workers will likely be much higher in the near future, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) which has its own estimate of more than half a million people employed in the sector in the US. Together, they contribute US$ 117 billion to the nation’s economy per year. Upwards of 1 300 companies are official ISRI members, operating some 4 000 facilities across the US.

Young blood

One factor that keeps coming back in reports is the average age of workers in the recycling industry. Office workers tend to get younger while those handling scrap tend to be between 45-55 years old. Women represent a growing proportion of the workforce, although still only making up around 20% of total employees.

Start-ups tend to have a lower average employee age while boasting higher gender (and ethnic) diversity. Established family-run businesses are usually passing the reins on to the next generation. The colleges and universities are offering more dedicated environmental courses is further encouraging young workers to pursue a career in recycling.

Sioned Thomas (29), business development manager at UK recycler Recorra, confirms the sector has been welcoming a lot of newcomers lately. ‘I was one of few twenty-somethings in the room only a couple of years ago. The next generation is much better represented now. The same goes for female entrepreneurs — and I’m not just talking about people in marketing.’

A prime example is Recorra’s director, Alison Roe. ‘She has almost 30 years of experience under her belt and has made the company into what it is today — all while having three children,’ Thomas says. ‘I admire her passion and her leadership. She’s a great example for young women thinking of joining the sector.’

Eager to help put recycling on the map amongst college students, she enjoys giving lectures on waste mangement trends. ‘Exposure really helps, both on campus and on social media. We have to fan the flame of interest and actively shape public opinion,’ Thomas argues.

‘That’s why I’m launching a series of short videos across LinkedIn, instagram and even Tiktok. People spend hours on their phones. If we can connect with them in an interactive, relatable way, this could boost collection rates while attracting new talent. It’s a win-win scenario.’

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