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Recycled Steel and Ferrous Scrap: Pollution and Economic Cost Benefits

John has recycled metals most of his life and is fascinated by waste that has value. Recycling made him aware of its necessity—and worth.

An incredible amount of steel comes from auto salvage yards.

An incredible amount of steel comes from auto salvage yards.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?

As of December of 2018, evidence has been gathered showing that Chinese hot-dip galvanization of steel coils causes an increase of as much as 50% more green house gas. This steel material is used in construction. Consider that galvanizing can occur with recycled or virgin steel.

This takes into account GHG for a large building's steel galvanizing only. When consideration is given to the total amount of pollution created from Chinese steel production, the numbers rise even more.

Contrasted to North American cold rolled steel, Chinese steel in the example above (a Minnesota office building) created the equivalent of 10,000 gallons of burnt gasoline. In general, Chinese steel pollutes on average three times the pollution of North American steel. But of course, the Chinese steel is cheaper. When the total price of the purchase is taken into account, is it cheaper?

Iron and Steel Recycling Facts

  • The United States discards enough iron and steel yearly to continuously supply all the auto makers in the entire nation.
  • Recycling steel saves 74% of the energy used to process virgin iron ore.
  • Steel is the only material used in construction today that can be 100% recycled and re-used. It is truly sustainable.
  • Even scrap waste from the smelting of steel is fed back into the system.
  • Because steel is magnetic, it is one of the most easily separated recyclables.
  • Virtually all manufactured steel items contain some recycled steel.
  • In the 60's the United States started using recycled steel in rebar. Domestically produced rebar contains 97% recycled material. Sources vary from old cars, appliances, hot water heaters, and just about any manufactured steel object.
  • Recycling one ton of steel conserves 2,500 lbs. of iron ore, 1,400 lbs. of coal, and 120 lbs. of limestone.
  • On average, the United States processes enough ferrous scrap daily (read stuff composed of iron), by weight, to build 25 Eiffel Towers every day of the year.
  • St. Louis's Gateway Arch used 900 tons of stainless steel in construction.
  • The annual amount of U.S. recycled ferrous scrap weighs enough to build 900 Golden Gate Bridges.

Reused Versus Recycled Steel

It is possible to melt recycled steel and create totally new forms. The classic example is a toaster being sold to a metal scrapper and it in turn becomes a ceiling fan. There is plenty of unwanted steel for that. But reusing steel is a form of recycling also. A very common use for fashioning new creations without the melt is in the furniture business.

One furniture business uses bikes in their contemporary designs. Bike furniture uses handlebars, frames, and rims for their creations of chairs, bar stools and love seats. Other businesses focus on steel contraptions for cutting and splicing to create new designs for those with a penchant for a specific machine. A for instance would be airplane parts for home decor.

Another example is furniture made from pipe and fittings. This type of furniture has taken off in recent years because of the extreme variety of shapes and sizes that can be formed. Look on Amazon for pipe furniture designed by Yuanshikj for many different uses. They have created shelf units, free standing and mountable, most of which can be made from recycled steel.

Even though wood and plastic are re-purposed, they are more difficult to use in a completely different form when ground or melted. This is one reason that recycled steel is a wonderful source of material for re-purposing and completely new item in form. As the world becomes more green aware, there is little doubt that steel will be used for more and more things, especially replacing some plastic uses.

Recycled Steel in Structures

The prefabrication of steel projects focuses construction costs away from the site. This eliminates site disturbance (dust, etc) at the project site. Though aluminum is often used because of its reflectivity, steel also has a high reflectance index value and can cool the area underneath significantly. Recycled steel is perfect for producing roofing materials. Parking spaces can be significantly cooled with steel roofing. Steel framing that is correctly installed can make a building very tight, contributing to less air loss and less energy consumption over the building's lifetime. Steel will not warp, responding to cold and heat much less. Recycled steel studs are also stronger than wood.

Recycled steel roofing

Recycled steel roofing

Why Recycled Steel Is Not Sufficient for Domestic Security

In June of 2018, President Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. He cited the need for a strong domestic metals industry to insure national security. We probably all know that materials for defense like tanks, airplanes, ships, ammunition, missiles, and more require a lot of steel.

But if the United States has so much steel to recycle, why the need for a strong domestic iron mining and steel producing industry? The argument for protective tariffs goes something like this.

If the United States were engaged in a large protracted war, not only would the furnaces for melting recycle steel all be operating, but the daily requirements for steel production would require the simultaneous mining and smelting of virgin iron ore to make the steel required for an adequate defense. In addition, the knowledge that the United States could produce its own iron for steel production would be reason to think twice about attacking.

Given the 9/11 attacks on the United States (the Pentagon), many military installation buildings need hardening. In the event of a national emergency, immediate steel deliveries will be required from the domestic steel industry. If dependent on foreign steel, these requirements cannot be guaranteed.

A currently proposed Nucor steel mill for making steel plate would take three years to build. We need healthy mills in operating condition to guarantee our national defense. All furnaces at large and small steel mills and smelters need to be ready.

Superior Strength Steel From Recycle

Many of the steel types used in the United States were developed over the last 20 years. There is a growing demand for thinner and stronger steel which contributes to the success of lighter applications in the modern world. These versions of steel have been developed thanks to the latest technologies.

The quest for lighter stronger materials is a universal goal for the U.S. economy. It advances the objective of lower fuel expenditure. Since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 37% because of improvements in the composition of steel.

The economy of the United States gobbles up 120 million tons of finished steel every year. Recycled steel of all types and in all applications is a huge contributor to the productive capacity of our country.

Material that was once a blender standing idly in your kitchen may well be part of a space capsule hurtling through space.

The Future

Recycling steel makes sense in terms of the economy, reduced pollution, energy savings and the national defense. It makes good sense to take advantage of our bounty of used steel.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 John R Wilsdon