Steel’s durability is one of the key properties that make steel a sustainable material, allowing for the reuse of countless products - from paper clips to automotive components and rail tracks.
Reuse is a key aspect of sustainability. Steel reuse can be described as any process where end-of-life steel is not re-melted but rather enters a new product use phase. Reuse is the best form of recycling as little or no additional energy is required for reprocessing. Steel’s durability enables many products to be reused. This extends the product life cycle and therefore conserves resources. Design is critical in saving resources and enhancing product reuse. Consequently, many steel companies and steel product manufacturers are increasingly designing products for reuse.
Remanufacturing restores durable used products to like-new condition. Both reuse and remanufacturing extend the overall product life and thereby save valuable resources.A wide range of steel products, like automotive engines and wind turbines, can be remanufactured for reuse, taking advantage of the durability of the steel components.
Steel's recyclability is another key factor contributing to it being a sustainable material. Once steel is produced, its life cycle is potentially endless because it is easy to recover with magnets and 100% recyclable without loss of quality. This makes it a permanent resource for society – as long as it is recovered at the end of each product life cycle.
100% of scrap from steel production and downstream processing is collected and recycled directly into steel production. Post-consumer scrap has to be collected and prepared (for example by shredding and baling).
Because of the high value of steel scrap, there are economic incentives that help to maintain high recycling levels, in addition to environmental benefits.
Recycling accounts for significant energy and raw material savings: over 1,400 kg of iron ore, 740 kg of coal, and 120 kg of limestone are saved for every tonne of steel scrap made into new steel. Over 22 billion tonnes of steel have been recycled worldwide since 1900 owing to steel’s 100% recyclability.
Due to its magnetic properties, steel is easy to separate from waste streams, enabling high recovery rates. Recovery rates differ from recycling rates. For example, while about 85% of automobiles are recovered for recycling, nearly 100% of the steel in these recovered vehicles is recycled because steel’s magnetic properties make it easy to separate from other materials.
All scrap from steel production and downstream processing (often referred to as pre-consumer scrap) is collected and recycled directly in the steel production process. The recycled content of any steel product can range from 5 to 100%. Scrap-based steel accounts for about 25% of the global steel production.
By sector, global steel recovery rates are estimated at 85% for construction, 85% for automotive (reaching close to 100% in the US), 90% for machinery, and 50% for electrical and domestic appliances.The average life for steel products is 45 year approximately. The time to recycling can vary from a few weeks in the case of steel packaging (can material), to vehicles which may last up to 15 - 20 years or infrastructure and buildings which may last up to 50 - 200 years.
Steel can be recycled over and over again, indefinitely, without any loss of its inherent properties. It is the most recycled industrial material in the world.
Steel’s combination of properties such as availability, cost, durability, strength, and ductility (the ability to be stretched or shaped without breaking) is what makes it unique. Steel’s properties enable it to suit a variety of product applications for which there are no energy and cost-effective substitutes.
There are thousands of different types of steels. They have evolved to support housing, food supply, transport and energy-delivery solutions. Almost everything that we use is either made from, or manufactured with, steel. It is a uniquely versatile material.