It has always been widely understood that scrap metal has economic value. With ever greater focus on recycling and reducing the strain we put on our natural resources, there is also a growing appreciation of the environmental benefits metal recycling can deliver.
Metals have been worked for jewellery and tools since pre-historic times and over the millennia, there has been an understanding that metals can be re-used, reformed, and re-purposed. There has also been an appreciation that it is, more-often-than-not, easier to recycle existing scrap metal than it is to extract it from virgin ore or find it through mining operations.
The economic value that can be derived by exploiting the readily recyclable nature of most metals has always supported a thriving business in scrap metal. Until relatively recently, however, this business existed in the background, often seen as simply part of the waste collection and removal process by businesses and consumers alike.
That is all beginning to change now. The sustained focus by environmental groups, Governments, regulatory bodies, consumers and eventually, businesses has brought every aspect of how we use, exploit, and consume our planet’s natural resources into ever sharper focus. Driven by greater awareness of the harm caused to the environment of relentless consumerism and profit-led decision-making, the search for a better way of living and co-existing with the natural environment in a sustainable way has gathered pace.
This is having a profound impact on the metals industries. Industries that have traditionally been seen as polluting, environmentally damaging and harmful are increasingly seen as part of the long-term environmental balance that needs to be struck if we are to live sustainably. Sustainability isn’t about going backwards or even halting technological development. It’s about using our ability to create, innovate and problem-solve to come up with better ways of existing that don’t negatively impact the environment. Or, if they do, by taking actions to mitigate that harm.
Needless to say, all this is a ‘work-in-progress’ and many would say that far from dealing with these issues, the situation is spiralling out of control. So, what can the metal industries contribute in a positive way moving forwards?
Metals are at the heart of a sustainable future
Recycling is a big part of the answer. Environmentally and economically, recycling metal is an extremely effective way of providing the components and products we rely on. Metals such as steel, iron, aluminium, and copper can be recycled an infinite number of times, because their metallic properties do not deteriorate with repeated melting and casting. This isn’t always the case with plastic and glass recycling, which can be so much more difficult and expensive to re-use.
Due to the inherent economic benefits of metal recycling, it is already a well-established industry, with an existing infrastructure and a clear financial basis that sustains it. Scrap metal from obsolete objects is collected, processed, and returned to commercial supply-chains already. Greater awareness throughout society and collective action by local and national Governments, international organisations, and the industries involved should see metal recycling rates grow substantially in the coming years. Such is the economic value of scrap metal that recovery operations are even starting at old landfill sites where a fortune in scrap metal is readily available and relatively easily accessible.
Demand and Supply
Demand for the recovered resource is, as ever, a crucial part of the equation. Just because it is possible, and desirable, to recover and re-use raw materials, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will happen. Without demand, the best efforts of environmentalists, authorities, and willing, supportive consumers, will simply lead to mountains of collected and sorted waste accumulating in storage facilities or, worse still, dumped in parts of the world where corruption and greed outweigh environmental responsibility and effective regulation.
Fortunately, due to its economic value created by increasing demand, metals have avoided the issues faced in the recycling of other materials, notably plastics. Foundries like NovaCast, for example, rely on metal recycling for a sustainable, cost-efficient source of raw material. According to the American Foundry Society, the price of casting would increase by 20–40% without the use of recycled materials and as metal raw material supply is a global business, those figures are likely to be reflected in foundries throughout the world.
Evidence shows that recycling scrap metal reduces the environmental impact of metal production. In 2016 for example, the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) reported* that obsolete steel used as raw material in steelmaking reached 235 million tonnes—that is, 235 million tonnes of waste that did not enter landfill sites.
In addition to the waste-reduction benefits, the metal recycling process also produces fewer emissions, and requires significantly less energy than producing new metal alloys. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) factsheet for iron and steel** shows that recycling steel requires 56% less energy than producing steel from iron ore. In addition, by using ferrous scrap rather than virgin materials in the production of iron and steel, CO2 emissions are reduced by up to 58%.
When recycled metal is available on the market, the demand for virgin ore extraction decreases. Metal recycling transforms waste into a useful resource, conserves energy, and decreases extraction activity and resulting environmental impacts.
A challenging future
That’s not to say, however, that all is well in the market for scrap metals. Prices have been extremely volatile over recent years because scrap metal prices are so intricately linked to the global price of metals and the increasingly restrictive regulation of scrap metal imports to important markets, such as China. With increasing focus on recycling, it is likely that the supply of scrap metal will continue to grow, which could force prices lower and threaten the viability of parts of the industry.
Often, what seems like a relatively simple argument about recycling to decrease the strain we put on our natural resources becomes so much more complex when one looks at the mechanics of making the situation better in practical terms. In many respects, metal recycling has been an environmental success over the years but if left to the markets to drive change, the balance between supply and demand could ultimately undermine and limit that success. Inevitably, Governments need to take responsibility for driving through the changes that are needed if they are to lead the world to a more sustainable future.
The focus at the moment, with the forthcoming COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, is on driving down global emissions of greenhouse gases. Such events will set global and national targets, but it is the detail that follows that will determine whether those targets and aspirations are met. And it is in industries, such as the recycling of resources, where real change can be enacted. For this to happen, however, the political will and rhetoric must be matched with creative solutions in terms of regulation, incentives, and effective penalties.
At NovaCast, we take our responsibilities for helping to deliver a sustainable future very seriously. From using recycled metals in our castings wherever we can to recycling the sand used in our sand casting process, and from investing in digital technologies that reduce waste and energy to supporting charities such as the Planet Water Foundation and Xylem Watermark, we are committed to making things better.
If you would like your next casting project to be placed with a company that is committed to sustainable production, call a member of NovaCast’s team on +44 (0) 1225 707466, send us a message here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.