When something is destined to go to the scrap yard, it’s a way of saying that its useful life is over. The very word scrap has come to mean something that has no value or purpose. But these days that isn’t the case. Scrap metal is actually a very useful resource, and one that’s value is increasingly being recognized around the world for a huge variety of purposes.
There are many reasons for scrap metal’s emergence as a useful material. First, metal can be reused and repurposed multiple times, with certain metals being recycled without any loss in quality. Unlike, say plastic, which has a limited capacity for recycling. Secondly, reusing scrap metal limits the need for costly and damaging mining processes that are used to access raw materials, while also ensuring any materials pulled from the earth don’t end up in landfill.
In this guide to the scrap recycling industry, we will provide a more in depth look at the scrap metal recycling process, including how it works, what can and can’t be recycled, and the benefits of seeing scrap as a useful resource and one that should be part of a more circular economy.
What is scrap metal recycling?
Scrap metal recycling is the process of recovering and processing recyclable metals that are either raw metals and alloys, or that are taken from end-of-life products. These materials can then be reused and reconfigured to make new metal goods and structures. There are numerous ways that scrap metal can be recycled, from curbside pick-up schemes to drop off recycling facilities and take back schemes—not to mention the good old fashioned local scrap yard where repurposing metals and metal parts has a long history.
In 2019, the US recycled about 56 million metric tons of scrap metal, which gives you some idea of the scale of the process involved. It also serves as a useful indicator of the value of scrap metal in today’s market, eclipsing that of paper products or wooden materials significantly.
Why should you recycle scrap metal?
There are many reasons why you should recycle, and we’ll go into more detail about the benefits below. But the two primary reasons are that it is beneficial to the planet and wider environment to reuse materials that we already have rather than extract new ones. Additionally, also, it is significantly more cost-effective to reuse and recycle metals than it is to extract raw materials and then process them into the same product, with savings being made across the board.
What types of scrap metal can I recycle?
The types of metal items that can be recycled generally fall into two categories: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals. Ferrous metals are those that are made using iron as a base, such as cast iron or stainless steel. Iron is the second most prevalent metal found in the earth’s crust and is highly magnetic. These types of metals are used extensively in appliances and furniture, as well as construction materials and transportation parts, such as engines and tires.
Non-ferrous scrap metals are non-iron based and commonly include tin, copper, nickel, lead, and aluminum. These tend to be more valuable as they can be endlessly recycled without losing any chemical properties. Although they only make up one tenth of the metals recycled in the US, they account for half the value of all scrap metal.
Metal products that can generally be recycled include:
- Appliances — Everyday domestic appliances such as toasters, refrigerators, washers, or dryers contain large amounts of recyclable metals that can be extracted and then recycled.
- Drinks cans — Aluminum cans are highly recyclable and aluminum maintains its integrity regardless of how often it is recycled. Additionally, some collection centers offer small deposits for returns since scrap aluminum is highly valuable.
- Batteries — Several types of batteries, especially lead, can be recycled. However, these often need to be delivered to specialist recycling facilities for processing.
- E-Waste — Electronic items such as computers and cell phones contain many metal parts that can be recycled. This includes gold, platinum, and lithium which are all integral to today’s digital technologies and are highly valuable.
There are a few types of scrap metals that can’t be recycled. These include radioactive metals such as plutonium and uranium, toxic metals such as mercury, metal containers with residual materials inside like paint or motor oil cans, and any metals that are public property.
Scrap metal recycling process
The scrap metal recycling process generally follows the following format, although depending on the products or materials being processed, other systems may be applied.
1. Collection and separation
Metals need to be collected in suitable containers and separated from non-metal items or from the types of metals that can’t be recycled. Further separation will take place during the process, often using magnets, electrical currents, or spectrometers.
In order to make melting easier the metal will need to be cut down into smaller shapes. This is usually achieved by shredding or torching. Once it has been prepared it is then ready to go to the next stage of the process.
3. Melting and refining
The shredded materials are melted, with any impurities rising to the top of the liquid where they can be separated. Depending on the quality of the new metal required, further refining may take place using processes like electrolysis. This recycled metal is now in a state close to its virgin metal form.
The new metal is then solidified into its new shape, which can include wires, bars, coils, or sheets. Or it can be prepared into specific shapes depending on the next phase of its use. It is now ready to be used again.
Benefits of scrap metal recycling
As you can see, there is a whole lot right with recycling scrap metal. But in case you need any further persuasion, here are five key benefits.
1. Preserve the planet
It’s no longer really in doubt. We can’t continue to drain the planet of its natural resources through dangerous and damaging processes such as mining. Not only does this deplete resources but also uses a colossal amount of energy. Recycling scrap helps us to reduce and ultimately remove the need for mining. According to the EPA, recycled steel and tin cans save between 60 to 74% of the energy required when using raw materials. Using less energy and producing fewer emissions to create new products has got to be a good thing.
2. Create jobs
Recycling scrap metal is labor intensive, which means it is an opportunity to create jobs within an industry that is cyclical. Metal can be reused over and over without a drop off in utility, meaning the scrap metal industry is relatively sustainable.
3. Boost manufacturing
The manufacturing industry needs raw materials to function. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimates that around 70% of the materials processed by the recycling industry each year are used by US manufacturing firms.
4. Save money
Recycled materials are cheaper and easier to source than raw materials, as well as being much less energy intensive. It’s also possible to sell unwanted scrap metal, allowing you to profit from machinery and materials that have reached the end of their life.
5. Become more sustainable
Getting on board with recycling scrap metal (as well as other materials) will help us to achieve the sustainability goals, as laid out by the UN in 2015.
For more information about our metal recycling services or to find out more about how recycling scrap could benefit the planet and save you money, get in touch with a member of the RTS team.