Construction is an essential part of human society, contributing to the growth and development of our people and culture. However, waste byproducts are one unfortunate side effect of development. While it has been a challenge to address some of these byproducts, innovators in the construction industry have found ways to adapt and minimize their collective carbon footprint. Numerous stakeholders — including employees, customers, investors, and governments — are calling on industries to improve their environmental performance.
How Recycled Metal Is a Solution to Metal Waste
One of the solutions that the construction industry has been able to implement to help reduce the amount of metal waste that ends up in landfills — along with the waste from harvesting and processing raw iron ore to create steel — is steel recycling. Metal recycling has been around in some form since ancient times when blacksmiths would melt and reshape metal into tools and weapons, and it is still an important part of metallurgy today.
Each year, the metals recycling industry transforms millions of tons of recycled scrap into a variety of new steel products, promoting sustainable development around the world. By using scrap as a raw material input, instead of virgin materials like iron ore, steelmakers reduce the demand for natural resources and energy consumption, minimize the emission of greenhouse gasses, and reduce the overall amount of material discarded in landfills.
In North America, essentially all the steel supplied to the construction sector is made by electric arc furnace steel producers who use recycled scrap metal as their primary raw material. The recycled content for these finished steel products exceeds 90 percent.
Recycled structural steel is the leading green construction material. Its high recycled content and recycling rate exceed those of any other construction material.
Over the past three decades, the steel industry has reduced greenhouse gas and overall emissions by 36% and increased the water recycling rate of steel production to 95%. Today, the North American steel industry is the least carbon-intensive of all major steel-producing regions, and its footprint will continue to decrease as the power grid utilizes more renewable energy sources.
As the green building movement grows, more and more building owners, architects, engineers, and contractors are selecting structural steel framing systems to meet sustainable design and construction goals.
The Benefits of Recycled Metal
Unlike many recycled products, such as plastic and paper, there is no loss of quality with recycled metal. Recycled paper, for example, cannot always be used for the same purposes as virgin paper due to loss of cleanliness and more. Conversely, recycled metal can still be used in construction and is still entirely durable — and once that product's use is done, it can be recycled again.
Indeed, steel products are 100% recyclable, meaning that every pure part of the steel product can be melted and molded into something different. Additionally, pure steel can be recycled together from several different sources. Unlike paper and plastic, which must be recycled differently depending on their use, steel from construction and automotive steel can be recycled together with no consequence.
Recycling metal is a significant step toward the construction industry's goal of a zero-waste, circular economy. Achieving this goal means reducing the amount of waste produced by the industry to zero through reusing, remanufacturing, and recycling products and byproducts to ensure that they don't end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose.
One of the other welcome impacts of metal recycling is that it creates a substantial amount of jobs. Scrap metal to be recycled must be processed at scrap yards that employ dozens of workers to collect, process, melt, and purify the metal into a usable form.
Additionally, construction companies and individuals are incentivized to recycle their metal by receiving payment for turning in their metal to scrap yards. Whether it is the leftover scrap metal from a large construction job site or an individual getting rid of a junk car that they can no longer use, they can receive compensation for recycling it rather than letting it end up in landfills.
Coming Together to Support Metal Recycling
Manufacturers in the construction industry can band together by supporting initiatives tied to metal recycling. Many manufacturers already operate scrap yards of their own to collect scrap metal for recycling. Expanding this practice could lead not only to more metal being recycled but also to jobs being created.
Additionally, manufacturers can commit to using more recycled steel in their products, thereby minimizing their reliance on virgin steel production and reducing their carbon footprint. And for consumers who make environmental performance a key aspect of their steel procurement decisions, this would incentivize and reward steel manufacturers for reducing their carbon emissions even further.
Thankfully, recycled steel is widely accepted in construction as a viable alternative to virgin steel. At this point, the industry needs not to find a solution but embrace this already viable solution on a broader scale. When more construction projects come together only to use recycled steel, we will be able to push forward toward a more sustainable, zero-waste economy.