Scrap metal has long been a revenue source for companies and individuals alike. But recycling your scrap metal is not only good for your wallet, it also helps the environment in countless ways. Last year, U.S. metal scrap recyclers processed 130 million tons of scrap metal and other materials, saving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving natural resources, and limiting the amount of material headed to landfills. Below, we explain why scrap metal recycling has been so successful where other recycling hasn’t, and some of the key impacts metal recycling makes to environmental preservation.
How Metal Recycling Is Different from Other Recycling
Major headlines in the last few years have revealed that the U.S. recycling business has been almost entirely based on selling materials to other countries. With many of those countries putting restrictions on their recyclable materials intake, the cost to incinerate or send material to landfills has actually become less than recycling. Paper and plastic are the main culprits contributing to this change in recycling economics, but metal is entirely different. The reason? Three simple but pivotal differences:
1) Most metals are infinitely recyclable
The basic truth you have to understand about recycling plastic and paper is that it’s not a one-to-one ratio. A plastic bottle cannot be recycled into a new plastic bottle and today’s bin full of office documents cannot become tomorrow’s ream of printer paper (at least not infinitely). Both paper and plastic degrade in quality during the recycling process. Most plastics can only be recycled once, and the usual recycled plastic product is fabric—the demand for which is shrinking. Papers can be recycled longer—up to five or six times depending on the type. After that, they have to be recycled into a lower grade material like an egg carton or toilet paper.
Most ferrous and non-ferrous metals have unlimited lifespans. An aluminum can quickly returns to life as an aluminum can, and nearly 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in use. Steel can be recycled from cans to cars and vice versa. In the past 30 years, more than 1 billion tons of steel scrap have been recycled into new steel by the American steel industry.
2) Sorting metal is easier
Because plastic and paper degrade in quality during the recycling process, it’s vital that these materials be cleaned and sorted to maximize recyclability and profit. This is the heart of the reason that the U.S. shipped so much material to foreign countries for years: low-wage workers in China sorted through the materials and cleaned them. Employing people in the U.S. to sort through these recyclable materials simply isn’t economically feasible.
Metals, however, can be roughly sorted into ferrous and non-ferrous materials using simple magnets, and specialized magnetic equipment can sort metals further. Because recycled metal is just as valuable as virgin metal, metal recyclers can also easily afford to employ sorters and filter impurities.
3) Recycling metal is cheaper
The fact that plastic and paper degrade with recycling and are difficult to sort makes recycling them expensive. Harvesting raw materials for plastic and paper and processing those materials, by contrast, is cheap. It’s not just that recycling plastic and paper aren’t profitable. For paper and plastic, recycling is the more expensive production option.
The equation is exactly the opposite for most metals. Extracting ore from the ground and processing it into metal is substantially more expensive than recycling metals. This, coupled with the fact that metal doesn’t degrade in recycling, means that there isn’t any real reason to source new metal apart from meeting increased demand.
4 Main Ways Metal Recycling Helps the Environment
Knowing recycled metal has substantial value, and that most metal materials in your household could be used indefinitely, should be enough to motivate you never to throw away another aluminum can. But metal recycling can also make a massive impact on several areas of sustainability, including:
Reducing Material in Landfills
Nothing biodegrades in a landfill, but metals take particularly long times to decompose. For example:
- Aluminum cans: 80-200 years
- Tin cans: 50 years
- Scrap metal: up to 500 years
When left to degrade in a landfill, many metals also release methane and contribute to air and groundwater pollution. Recycling your scrap metal also means it doesn’t take up real estate in landfills, which is space that should be reserved exclusively for non-recyclable items.
Wildlife and Landscape Preservation
The raw materials for virgin metal come from mining of metal ores. After centuries of steel, iron, gold, and other mining, major metal deposits can usually only be found in untouched landscapes far from human populations. Mining not only destroys these landscapes, but it potentially permanently alters wildlife habitats and can have irreversible effects on groundwater quality and geological stability. Recycling your scrap metal helps prevent mining, and thus helps preserve many untouched landscapes and wildlife.
Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Chemicals used in the mining process contaminate air and soil quality and often seep into groundwater, and mining requires massive amounts of energy compared to recycling. Recycling metals also cuts down on air pollution caused by large-scale transportation. As we mentioned earlier, metal ores are only located in specific locations throughout the globe. However, metal products exist everywhere. Recycling scrap metal means virgin metal or ore doesn’t have to be transported internationally, cutting back on fuel emissions.
Recycling metal does contribute to GHG emissions, but studies have noted that these emissions are easily offset by the large savings avoided in virgin metal production. For example:
- Recycling steel from a single car reduces the equivalent of GHG emissions from more than 300 gallons of gasoline
- Recycling a refrigerator reduces the emissions by 225 pounds of CO2
- Ferrous scrap recycling in the production of iron and steel reduces CO2 emissions by 58%
Making new metal from mined ore uses much more energy than recycling scrap metal. Energy savings is potentially the largest area of environmental impact for metal recycling, as it takes as much energy to make one new can as it does to recycle 20.
Recycling aluminum saves more than 90% of energy compared to mining raw materials. Steel saves 33%. The energy saved when you recycle one ton of steel is comparable to the energy required to run a home for two months. Through recycling, the steel industry saves enough energy to power about 18 million households.
Scrap Metal Recycling in East Tennessee
Recycling scrap metal reduces environmental impact tremendously, and in contrast to other forms of recycling, it’s a thriving, sustainable business. Recycling scrap metal benefits businesses and individuals alike, both on the buying and selling sides of the equation. Thanks to businesses like Roane Metals Group, scrap metal recycling is also convenient and easy here in East Tennessee.
At Roane Metals Group, we buy a wide range of metals, and our experienced and highly trained staff wants to give you the best bang for your scrapping buck with our honest scales to maximize your payout. If you have scrap metal and you’re ready to cash in, come by one of our two conveniently located East Tennessee scrap yards in Rockwood and Crossville.
To find out more about recycling your scrap, give us a call at 865-354-4282 today.