Mind Over Matter: Recycling Metal to the Max

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Image credit: Library of Congress

In a previous post, I took a glimpse into the state of scrap metal. Not only is it a valuable commodity, its value in recycling is very high”with aluminum and steel being the most common metals for recycling.

According to The Aluminum Association, “Every minute of everyday, an average of 113,204 aluminum cans are recycled. Concerning steel, “Over 65 percent of the steel produced in the U.S. is recycled into new steel every year according to Earth911.com. Matching their demonstrated potential for reuse is their track record for recycling:

  • Over 50 percent of the aluminum cans produced are recycled.
  • The steel industry has been recycling for over 150 years.

A short dictionary of scrap metal
Scrap metal consists of any type of recyclable material, resulting from product consumption”such as parts of automobiles and buildings. This sounds like waste, or just plain trash, but handling scrap metal is big business. A scrap yard may contain the following:

  • Ferrous scrap is scrap iron and steel. This includes scrap from old automobiles, farm equipment, household appliances, steel beams, railroad tracks, ships, and food packaging and other containers. Ferrous scrap accounts for the largest volume of metal scrapped.
  • Nonferrous scrap includes any metal other than steel or iron, such as copper, aluminum, lead, nickel and zinc. Nonferrous scrap metals fetch more money per pound than ferrous scrap metals.
  • Home scrap includes metal generated at a refinery, mill or foundry that is re-melted and reused at the same facility. Home scrap can be either ferrous or nonferrous metal.
  • Industrial scrap involves metal that is drilled or cut out of a piece of metal and not used in the finished product. The automotive industry generates  the most industrial scrap.
  • Obsolete scrap is any metal that is unusable or worn out. Obsolete scrap includes old radiators, used photography film, old pipes and major appliances.

Reusability: it isn’t alchemy
eHow Contributing Writer Edward Jenkins summarizes the process of taking scrap metal and turning it into new products:

Scrap metals are collected from disposed vehicles, consumer items (such as cans) and industrial products. The metals are sent to sorting agents who separate the metals by type and composition in order to keep similar metals together. The sorting agents then send the scrap metals to a metal recycling plant, which may be located on-site or at a different location.


Image credit: Wikipedia

The metal recycling plant performs a quality inspection on the scrap metal it receives, ensuring that the sorting agent has correctly separated the metal types. After inspection, the metal is heated in a smelter (above), a device capable of melting large objects at very high temperatures. The different metals go through different smelters, because each metal has a different melting point (for example, aluminum melts at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, steel at 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit). Once the metals are fully molten, they are molded into small bars called ingots and are allowed to cool.


Image credit: Wikipedia

The ingots are distributed to manufacturers and re-melted to start a new life as various products. Some popular uses for recycled metals are aluminum cans (for soft drinks), office products (filing cabinets, storage racks) and household products (canned foods, metal furnishing). In recent years, steel from old automobiles has even been used in conjunction with new steel to manufacture new automobiles.

Recycling also means changing behavior
The Appliance Recycling Information Center related these benefits of recycling scrap metal:

  • 97% Reduction in mining wastes
  • 90% Savings in virgin materials use
  • 86% Reduction in air pollution
  • 76% Reduction in water pollution
  • 74% Reduction in energy
  • 40% Reduction in water use

The positive effects of recycling scrap metal on both industry and the environment are widely reported and speak to recycling’s importance. Moreover, it speaks to the importance of pausing before throwing away a metal can, newspaper or plastic bottle. Instead, throw these and similar items into a recycling bin.

But the behavioral chain of recycling events doesn’t stop here. As Lisa Rabasca, editor of industry newsletter Recycling Times, put it, “We have become masters at separating trash. Now the challenge is to go out and buy things with recycled content. That’s the only way markets will stay strong for recycled materials. And metal’s “shelf-life more extended.

Nate Burgos

Comment (1)

  1. You can recycle your car at Cars4Charities. They make the car donation process simple and will pickup your car at no charge. When you donate your car, you’ll get a tax deduction and help a charity!

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