What is scrap metal recycling? The scrap metal industry is an important and well established activity of recovering metal generated from manufacturing scrap as well as most importantly from products after their useful life. Scrap metal recycling has many important benefits, and plays a powerful role in supporting both environmental and economic outcomes. It is highly successful in diverting metal scrap from landfills, and provides raw material for new products, offering a much lower carbon footprint and more efficient utilization of resources than new material. Aside from environmental benefits, metal recycling is an extremely powerful economic activity, generating over $64 billion to the U.S. in 2010, according to ISRI statistics.
When talking about scrap metal recycling, it is important to differentiate between the two main categories of scrap metal, ferrous metal and nonferrous metal. While ferrous metal contains some degree of iron (and in fact its name is derived from the latin term meaning iron), non-ferrous metal does not contain iron as a component. Recovered nonferrous scrap, including aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin, zinc and others.
The Scrap Metal Supply Chain
The collection of scrap metal is hierarchical, and can start with scrap metal collectors who pick up small quantities of scrap for sale to scrap yards, as well as many other scrap business roles. Community recycling programs, electronics recycling and larger commercial generators of scrap metal also provide other conduits of scrap.
Recovery Volumes and Recycling Rates
In terms of volume, ISRI estimated that United States recycles more than 54 million metric tons of ferrous metal and approximately 8.2 metric tons of nonferrous metal in 2010. While the volume of ferrous metals recovered is much greater, nonferrous metals generate more industry revenue due to their greater value, and as such are aggressively recycled. Recovered nonferrous scrap, including aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin, zinc and others, is consumed by secondary processors in the U.S. as well as in more than 100 countries worldwide. Nonferrous scrap is generated from consumer, commercial and industrial sources, and includes copper and precious metal circuitry found in electronic devices , automobile batteries and radiators, soft-drink containers, aluminum siding, airplane parts as well as others.
The top categories of nonferrous scrap metal recovery included:
- 4.6 million metric tons of aluminum
- 1.8 million metric tons of copper
- 1.2 million metric tons of lead
- 162,000 metric tons of zinc
- 2 million tons of nickel/stainless steel
The recycling rate is a very important measure in terms of landfill diversion. Scrap metal has been recycled for thousands of years because it has been long recognized as being a more efficient process than mining and processing new ore. Recycling rates for metal is generally high, due to its value. For example, ferrous metals have a recovery rate as follows:
- for cars: 106 percent
- for appliances: 90 percent
- for steel cans: 66.8 percent
- for structural steel: 98 percent
- for reinforcement steel: 70 percent
Maintaining the recycling rate for predominantly consumer goods can be more challenging, such as in the case of aluminum beverage containers. Overall, the recycling rate for aluminum cans is only 58.1 percent (2011), yet in jurisdictions that have beverage container deposit laws, the recovery rate is much higher. For example, in British Columbia, which has a 5 cent deposit, the recovery rate was 83.5 percent (2010).
However, there is still much work to be done in raising the recycling rate for metals. For example, a U.N. report has pointed out that less than one-third of 60 metals reviewed have a recovery rate of more than 50 percent. The report made recommendations to improve recycling rates, including:
- Encouraging product design that makes disassembly and material separation easier
- Improving waste management and recycling infrastructure for complex end-oflife products in developing countries and emerging economies
- In industrialized countries, addressing the fact that many metal-containing products are ‘hibernating’ in places likes drawers and closets and others, such as mobile phones, are all too often ending up in dustbins
- The ongoing improvement of recycling technologies and collection systems to keep pace with “ever more complex products created with an increasingly diverse range of metals and alloys.”
Environmental Benefits of Recycling
Aside from the diversion of material from landfills, other important benefits of metal recycling versus the creation of virgin metal include a reduction in energy consumption as well as in the use of other materials. For example recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy, while copper needs 90 percent less, and steel 56 percent less. Additionally, the recycling of one ton of steel avoids the use of 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone.