Steel is a versatile commodity that plays a major part in everyday lifefrom food cans, household containers, automobiles, and office buildings. Steel makes up the largest category of metals in the municipal solid waste (MSW) and industrial waste streams. Steel has long been a recycled material throughout the world.
Just the Facts
- In 2011, the United States generated about 2.2 million tons of steel as containers and packaging in the MSW stream, as well as another 14.3 million tons of ferrous metals, which include iron and steel, as durable goodsrepresenting 6.6 percent of total MSW generation in 2011.
- The amount of ferrous metals generation in MSW has declined from 11.7 percent in 1960 to 6.6 percent in 2011.
- Large quantities of steel and other ferrous metals are found in construction materials and transportation products, such as automobiles, locomotives, and ships, but these are not included in calculations of MSW. These non-MSW products are, however, highly recycled. For example, in 2008, the steel industry recovered and recycled more than 14 million tons of shredded steel scrap from automobilesa recycling rate of 95 percent, according to the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI).
More Steel Information
The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) is a trade association representing steel producers, including integrated, electric furnace, and reconstituted mills; suppliers to or customers of the industry; and affiliate member organizations, including downstream steel producers of products such as cold rolled strip, pipe and tube, and coated sheet.
The Steel Recycling Institute (SRI) , a unit of AISI, is an industry association that promotes steel recycling.
The Steel Manufacturers Association (SMA) consists of 57 North American companies that operate more than 130 steel plants. SMA is a trade association for scrap-based EAF steel makers.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) is a trade association representing the scrap processing and recycling industry. ISRI represents 1,400 companies that process, broker, and industrially consume scrap commodities, including metals.
The North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance Metals: Steel Cans and Scrap Commodity Profile, 1998 (PDF) (7 pp, 154K, about PDF) includes a national overview on the markets for recovered steel cans and scrap.
US Geological Survey, Iron and Steel Recycling in the United States in 2012 (PDF) (2 pp, 234K, about PDF). For previous years reports, see Iron and Steel Scrap Statistics Information.
How Steel is Made
Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. It is made by heating coke, a solid iron fuel, with iron ore and limestone in a blast furnace. It is produced in one of two ways: the basic oxygen furnace (BOF) process, which uses 25 to 35 percent recovered steel, and the electric arc furnace (EAF) process which uses nearly 100 percent recovered steel.
Steel cans and other steel recyclables are usually collected from the curbside, then hauled to a material recovery facility, where workers separate it from other recyclables and crush it in to large bales. The bales are shipped to steel mills or foundries, where they are combined with other steel scrap and melted in a furnace to make new steel.
The steel industry in North America has been recycling steel scrap for more than 150 years. The steel industry needs scrap to produce new steel, which ensures that all steel products contain anywhere from 25 percent up to 100 percent recycled content. It also is cheaper to recycle steel than it is to mine virgin ore to manufacture new steel. New ore is still mined in order to supplement production of steel and steel products.
Recovering steel not only saves money, but also dramatically reduces energy consumption, compared to making steel from virgin materials. In turn, this reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released in to the air during processing and manufacturing steel from virgin ore.
Source reduction is the process of reducing the amount or toxicity of waste generated. The steel industry has successfully been able to reduce the amount of material needed to make the same products. According to data from AISI, over the past 25 years, the thickness of steel containers has been reduced by 30 percent, from 0.20 millimeters (mm) to 0.14 mm. Technological developments in gauge control are further reducing thicknesses to 0.12 mm. Thickness will continue to be reduced through more advanced technology and higher-quality steel. Steel for automobiles has also become more lightweight, especially given recent demand for lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.