Is metal really that important in everyday life? Consider how prevalent metals — such as steel and aluminum — are in construction, manufacturing, technology, and even regular household items. Other metals like gold, silver, copper, and brass are often cherished items and hold significant value.
Perhaps you didn’t know or forgot, but this raw material is recyclable — and should be disposed of correctly for good reason. Metal’s properties stay the same regardless of how often it’s melted down, creating one less problem for waste management.
If you’ve always wondered how recycling metal works and why it matters, hopefully, this will encourage you to start.
What’s the Process for Recycling Metal?
Recycling metal greatly depends on the properties of each type. Nevertheless, the process is similar to how other items undergo recycling and follows these four steps.
1. Collection and Sorting
Collection and sorting are two of the most critical steps in metal recycling. While collecting metals might seem straightforward, staying organized is key.
People can drop their metal scraps off at scrap yards, where they typically get paid for their contribution. For example, some metal recyclers may pay $2 per pound for brass, while copper may be payable up to $4 more per pound.
After collecting the metal, it goes through an automated separation of ferrous and nonferrous materials — ferrous metals like steel contain iron, while everything else is considered nonferrous. Ferrous items will stick to a giant magnet, making sorting the scraps much more manageable. Advanced induction sensors help identify metals using infrared scanners, streamlining industry processes.
Precious metals like gold, silver and platinum are considered valuable commodities and handled with care — of course, with more stringent recycling standards due to their economic value.
2. Breaking Down the Parts
After sorting, metals are transported to reprocessing plants that break them down into smaller parts.
Heavy machinery manipulates the metals by squeezing and compressing them before they undergo shredding. Aluminum is usually pressed into sheets, while steel may get molded into cubes. This saves room on the conveyor belts.
While each metal recycling step comes with risks, industry professionals — particularly those working with the machines — must comply with the safety and environmental guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to prevent injury.
3. Smelting and Purifying
The broken-down pieces then go to a refinery built for smelting metals at varying temperatures according to their properties. Melting may take anywhere from minutes to hours.
Purification is the next step to ensure there are no impurities. Most metals pass beneath magnet technologies that separate the contaminants from the recyclables. However, specific types of metal like copper go through electro-refining to remove any negative ingredients from their base.
4. Solidifying for Reuse
A convey belt transports the melted metal to a cooling chamber, where it solidifies again. At that point, scrap metal is ready for reuse. Chemical substances help the metal regain shape, which can take on several different formations and sizes. The recycled metal finally gets shipped out to factories for manufacturing of goods and other essential benefits, where it starts the process again.
3 Reasons Why You Should Recycle Metal
Although you should consider recycling metals for many reasons, these three environmental impacts may encourage you to start now.
1. Mining Metal Pollutes Water Resources
Metals are extracted from the earth through mining — a key industry for many economies worldwide. However, miners move on to the next location once they deplete an area of its metal materials, leaving a damaged ecosystem in their wake.
Mining activities — from exploration to excavation to abandonment — often cause severe land-use changes within fragile ecosystems. According to one recent study, exploration and operations lead to deforestation and contaminated soils and water. Abandoning and decommissioning mines also contribute to water acidification and obstruct the migratory routes of animals.
Mining for metals carries consequences for public health as well. Although mining delivers economic opportunities to nearby communities, it comes at a price. Communities often risk highly acidic mine drainage infiltrating precious drinking water.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the most acidic waters in the U.S. are at Iron Mountain in Redding, California, where concentrations of mine drainage are hotter than battery acid. While the EPA has removed 80% to 90% of copper and zinc from the site since 1994, concentrations still make their way upstream.
Recycling metal ultimately reduces the need for mining in the first place, safeguarding natural resources and worldwide health from hazardous pollution.
2. Manufacturing Produces Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Steel is essential to construction and engineering, but mining and production processes decrease air quality by producing 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
As concerns around climate change surge and new regulations aim to reduce carbon emissions, 14% of steel companies risk substantial loss in value. As a result, the sector is committed to reducing 50% of its emissions by 2050.
While decarbonizing the steel industry is excellent news for climate change, recycling metal has a more significant advantage in reducing emissions. According to the Insititute of Scrap Recycling Industries, metal recycling can eliminate 300 million to 500 million tons of carbon.
3. Metal Generates Excess Waste
Americans produce a lot of trash — approximately 292.4 million tons of landfill waste in 2018, to be exact.
Ferrous metal — mainly steel — makes up a lot of municipal solid waste (MSW), placing pressure on U.S. landfills to accommodate large volumes of scrap materials. Of 2018’s MSW generation, ferrous metals accounted for 6.6% of it — equivalent to 19.2 million tons.
By recycling metals, people can free up space in overcrowded landfills. Since researchers expect trash accumulation to increase in the coming years, recycling and repurposing metals are essential to waste management.
Recycle Metal to Preserve Precious Resources
Metals and natural resources are equally vital to the quality of life, so people should make greater strides to recycle scrap metals. Do your research to understand how to sort ferrous and nonferrous materials apart — then make a conscious effort to reduce your metal waste with recycling.
Jane is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co and an environmental writer covering green technology, sustainability and environmental news.