I’ve been working in this industry for many years now, but it still surprises me what little people seem to know about steel recycling. There’s so much to talk about, I can’t do it justice here, but will give you a brief insight.
Search the internet for materials that are recyclable and you come across all sorts of materials, and these are typically what you, the consumer, recycles in your home – paper, plastic bottles, aluminium or tin cans, glass and then things like clothes, electronics, batteries, garden waste… Even other materials like concrete claim to be recycled! A material that is the easiest material to recycle is sometimes, but not always, included in these lists of recyclable materials. Steel. It’s not always recognised that a tin can is actually made from steel or that there’s a lot of steel in the car you take to the scrap yard to be recycled.
The reason steel is the easiest material in the world to recycle is because it is magnetic. Steel is the easiest material for the shredder to extract because it’s magnetic and, coincidentally, it is also what makes scrapping cars profitable for the shredder as there is a well-established market for the steel scrap.
There’s also quite some confusion about the different terms related to recycling, other than the word recycling itself. Recycled content, recyclable, downcycling…
Recycling is all about taking the material that has reached the end of its life and turning it back into the same material again – so while other materials are thought to be recycled, this is often confused with reuse, or downgrading the material – making it available for use but not as the same material as it started out as (e.g. making a fleece jumper out of plastic bottles). This is generally a good thing of course, but is not technically recycling. So often I hear people saying they’re recycling something, when in fact, they are just reusing it (which is great, just the wrong terminology), or the material is being downcycled, such as paper being recycled into cardboard boxes.
And it’s how much material that is actually recycled that is important – many materials are recyclable, i.e. it’s possible to recycle them, but this term doesn’t specify how much is actually recycled, or whether there are collection and processing systems in place for it to happen. Recycled content, while it’s maybe easy to understand, pushing an increasing requirement on the recycled content of products doesn’t always change the behaviour that we want to influence…. We need more people to recycle their products (making sure they consider reusing the products first) so that enough material is available to be recycled.
As it’s environmentally beneficial to recycle steel (for example, each tonne of scrap recycled saves 1.5 tonnes CO2, 1.4 tonnes of iron ore and 740kg of coal and), there’s a well-established market that has been around for many decades to purchase the steel scrap to make new steel products. It’s estimated that we currently recycle over 85% of all steel products that reach the end of their life.
Recycling steel scrap uses about a third of the energy that it takes to make steel from virgin raw materials. Steel scrap is also a necessary input to the Basic Oxygen Furnace (absorbing excess energy to help cool the process down) which is often perceived as the virgin steel route.
Today we recycle around 630 million tonnes of steel every year (saving 945 million tonnes of CO2 annually) – this is more than all other materials combined, making it the unexpected recycling champion. We could recycle even more steel, but due to its long life span, steel often remains in products for many years so we have to wait for them to reach the end of their lives before we can get the steel back to recycle it into new products.
So, what needs to happen? We need to use materials more efficiently – better product design and manufacturing processes – more sustainable use of products by the consumer, consider reusing products to extend their useful life, and really, when they’re finally no longer able to be used, recycle them! Following this approach demonstrates that steel is the key material for the circular economy, enabling society to become more sustainable.