How to Open a Recycling Business

Monty Rakusen/Cultura/GettyImages

There are countless ways to get into the recycling business. At a general level, you simply have to put yourself between two types of people: those getting rid of something and those who want to buy that something. Businesses can range from multimillion-dollar paper or steel recycling plants to the person who picks up cans and bottles on the street for a few extra bucks.

Recycling is a significant part of the economy. In the United States, it's just as large as the auto manufacturing industry. According to a 2016 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, about 56,000 establishments employ over 1.1 million people in the recycling industry, with annual revenues over $236 billion.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

There are two basic models for starting a recycling business. Having people bring items to you will require you to open recycling centers or depots. Going out and picking up items yourself will require a truck or a trailer and will usually result in you getting more items.

Selecting a Business Model

Business models for recycling are just about endless. They include collecting items from curbside trash and selling them to recycling centers, building a recycling plant yourself or finding a new use for items that people are throwing away.

It's best to first take a look at current recycling efforts in your community to see what businesses or government recycling programs are already in place. Regardless of where you live, there should be opportunities for you to start your business without a huge investment up front.

Consider these three questions:

  1. Who are your sources of materials? (i.e. consumers or specific types of businesses)

  2. Will you be fixing or repurposing materials or not?

  3. Who are your customers? (manufacturers, retailers, consumers, recycling centers, etc.)

Construction Material Recycling

While a well-managed new construction site shouldn't have a lot of waste, there is usually quite a bit left over. Reconstruction sites, on the other hand, can amass a lot of waste, including electrical wire, hardwoods and metal pipes. You can resell the materials to existing recycling centers or sell them directly to consumers depending on the condition of the materials.

You'll need a truck to collect the items. Contractors and property owners will likely be happy to see you, as hauling away construction debris can become expensive. Be certain to talk to them first, however, since they may already have plans for the materials or an arrangement with another recycling company.

Cooking Oil Recycling

Used cooking oil can be recycled by cleaning it of impurities and reusing it or by turning it into fuel. Restaurants go through a lot of cooking oil and grease, which you can collect and then sell to a recycler or process it yourself to resell. Clients store the used oil in containers, which you can collect on a weekly basis.

To get into this business, you'll likely want to get a small tanker truck to carry the oil. You'll also need to provide customers with sealable containers for storing their used oil. Some restaurants will need more visits depending on the size of the containers you use and the amount of oil they use.

Electronics and Printer Cartridge Recycling

Like most recycling opportunities, there are two paths you can take as an electronics or printer cartridge recycler. You can sell what you collect to other recyclers or fix some of them, refill the cartridges and sell them to consumers.

Smartphones and tablets in particular contain a wealth of precious metals. Most people get a new smartphone every year or two, and far too many of them wind up in a landfill. A typical iPhone contains about:

  • 0.034 grams of gold
  • 0.34 grams of silver
  • 0.015 grams of palladium
  • 25 grams of aluminum
  • 15 grams of copper

These are small amounts, of course, but if you multiply each of these amounts by a few thousand phones, they add up to quite a valuable amount.

Scrap Metal Recycling

This business involves collecting scrap metal that would otherwise be discarded and then selling it, usually to a scrap yard. You'll need to separate ferrous from nonferrous metals first. Ferrous metals (steel and iron) are picked up with a magnet and weighed to determine their value.

Nonferrous metals like copper, brass, aluminum and bronze are generally more valuable. Of these, aluminum is the least valuable, while copper can bring you good money. Obviously, precious metals like gold and silver are much more valuable but are much harder to collect unless you want to pay people for the metal.

Starting a Tire Recycling Business

There can be good money in recycling used tires provided you can find the right buyers. If the tires are still in decent shape, you can resell them to garages or directly to consumers on websites like Craigslist. If you have the equipment, you may be able to retread the tires before selling them. Alternatively, if you have a use for trash tires, like making tire swings, this could be a profitable business model.

If you can find a company interested in buying your tires, you could make money by collecting them from garages and selling them. However, the market for unusable tires is limited, and there's a good chance that a recycling center will actually charge you for dropping off trash tires. In this case, you could collect tires from garages for a higher rate and then pay the recycling center to take them.

Starting a Wood Recycling Business

There are many ways of recycling used wood. Old barn wood and antique oak doors, for example, can fetch a good dollar from furniture makers and hobbyists. In many cases, used lumber can be reused for construction depending on its condition and provided you remove nails and plane and trim the wood.

Look for construction sites, particularly for buildings about to be demolished or homeowners who are renovating. Often, you will find people throwing away wood furniture, doors and cabinets.

Doing Neighborhood Collections

There are many people who make a good living with a pickup truck simply by driving through neighborhoods before the garbage trucks go by, collecting items that can be recycled and then selling them. Some of these include:

  • Glass recycling
  • Plastic recycling
  • Paper recycling
  • Appliance recycling
  • Car battery recycling

Obviously, you will need to find buyers for what you collect before getting started. It would also be a good idea to check the laws for your community. Some places have a law specifying that garbage left on the curb is municipal property, while others don't have such a law.

Open a Recycling Center

There are almost as many business models for starting a recycling center as there are for recycling itself. At its most basic level, this could be a place for people to drop off used paper, cans and bottles or even wood pallets, giving them the satisfaction that it won't end up in a landfill or in the ocean.

However, if you are creative or have the skills to fix things, it could be a place for people to bring used or broken items, like furniture, tools, appliances or even clothing. Once you fix them and clean them, you can then resell them.

Before you start to open a recycling center , check on local zoning requirements. Better yet, contact your local government officials to discuss your plans. If you're offering a valuable service to your community, you may be able to get a grant or tax relief for your new business.