Earth Day 2018 – Metal Recycling and You!

April 22nd was Earth Day, and even though it was on a Sunday and we were closed, we feel that it’s important enough to mention a day late. And frankly, Earth deserves more than just a day. It’s the only home we’ve got, and taking care of that home is a 365 day job. Being green is good for us all, our families, friends, companies, communities, and our future.

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Metal recycling by the numbers

The amount of metal that is recycled in the US alone every year is astounding. According to the United Stated Department of Labor, 56 million tons of iron and steel, 1.5 million tons of copper, 2.5 million tons of aluminum, 1.3 million tons of lead, 300,000 tons of zinc and 800,000 tons of scrap stainless steel, and smaller quantities of other metals, are recycled annually.

In fact, the US recycles more steel every year than paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass combined. In this regard, America is not alone. The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) says steel is the most recycled material on the planet. Aluminum, copper, silver, brass, and gold are also frequently reused. Interestingly enough though, the single most recycled item in the US is the humble aluminum can. Estimates show that 40% of worldwide steel production relies on metal recycling, as does 42% of US crude steel. Over 400 million tons of metal are processed annually across the world.

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WWII poster encouraging rubber and metal recycling

Ultimately though, these numbers hide a much more concerning truth, that the amount of metal recycling in the world is woefully inadequate. Only about 30% of metal used globally is reprocessed with metal recycling. Consider that the US alone uses and throws away 100 million steel and tin cans every single day.

The buzz phrase “Green Metals” has been popularized, but in effect, the best way to reduce metal impacts on the environment is to recycle. Metals have a uniquely advantageous position in that most can be recycled almost infinitely without losing quality! This is nothing to shake a stick at either. Various studies indicate that reusing metals in this way can take 10 times less energy than is required to mine, melt, and process new metal!

How is metal recycling done?

That depends upon whether the material is ferrous or non-ferrous. Ferrous materials (iron and steel) are the easiest to recycle because the garbage containing the metal is run under a magnet, and the metal is sucked pulled out. Once it is cleaned, it is remelted and reprocessed. Non ferrous metals are much more challenging to sort from other garbage, which contributes to the low numbers of metal recycling.

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Bales of steel for reycling

Why are the numbers so low, and how can I help?

The comparatively low percentage of metal recycling is due to a few factors. One of the biggest is the complexity of modern electronics makes it challenging to sort out the different metals and reprocess them. As mentioned earlier, sorting non-ferrous metals is also difficult. The two largest factors though are unfortunately laziness and shortsightedness. People and companies often just don’t care enough to take the time to recycle metals.

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But you can help change that!

How you may ask? At the most basic level, stick to the slogan; reduce, reuse, recycle!

  1. Reduce the amount of excess metal you need
  2. Reuse metals as often as you can
  3. Take the time to recycle that metal

Other things that you can do, especially if you are in a design or management position:

  1. Design products that are easier to disassemble and separate
  2. Improve your the recycling infrastructure of your company/agency

Lastly, something that everyone can do is to look for “hibernating” products. That is, look for old or unused devices and materials sitting in places like closets, drawers, garages, and recycle those!
It will take a lot of work to adjust our methods and culture to prioritize being green, but it’s work that is crucial and has massive value to us all. Do your best to improve and encourage others to do the same. Let’s take better care of our home!

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