10 Recycled Steel Myths – 10 Things You Thought Were True

A photograph of a pile of steel scrap in a scrapyard with a crane in the background. Across the bottom are the words "10 Recycled Steel Myths - 10 Things You Thought Were True." In the upper right is a red speech bubble with the word "Myth."

Steel is the world’s most recycled material, with about 680 million tons recycled in 2021.

While recycled steel has emerged as a boon for sustainable construction, its use could be hampered by myths and misconceptions unless we shine a light on them and replace them with the truth.

I’ll discuss ten recycled steel myths in this article to shed light on the truth. I’ll provide scientific evidence and undeniable facts to dispel these myths, so keep reading to learn more.

1. Recycled Steel Is Poor Quality

A stack of steel beams with an "H" cross section. In the lower left is a "thumbs up" with a red badge stating "100% Quality."
Contrary to the common myth, recycled steel is just as good quality as virgin steel, even after being recycled many times.

One of the main recycled steel myths is that the material is of poor quality compared to its virgin counterpart.

Some people think recycling steel makes it lose its structural strength and durability.

Recycled steel retains its qualities even when recycled many times. The material maintains its tensile strength, yield strength, and its durability due to the following reasons:

  • Inherent properties: Steel’s strength and durability arise from the fact that it’s an alloy of iron and carbon. There are other elements in small quantities, like 11% chromium in stainless steel. These elements remain present in recycled steel after reprocessing unless deliberate adjustments are made to its composition.
  • The recycling process: Steel recycling involves collecting, sorting, separating, shredding, melting, casting, and rolling. These steps don’t change steel’s structural composition to alter its quality. After melting, the material cools and solidifies before being cast into the final recycled steel products.
  • Quality control: Quality control measures are implemented during recycling to ensure the end product has the same quality as its virgin counterpart. Recycled steel undergoes quality control tests to assure its metallurgical composition, tensile strength, and ductility to confirm its quality before being released to the market.

2. There Is Low Demand for Recycled Steel

A row of four silver recycled steel cans against a white background. In the lower right is a stylized graph showing a green arrow pointing up and to the right to indicate increased demand, contrary to the myth.
Contrary to the myth, demand for recycled steel is high and increasing.

The demand for recycled steel is actually high and on the rise as more people take advantage of the material’s sustainability benefits.

According to The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), steel scrap usage in 2021 accounted for 79.7 percent of global steel production.

Think about it; if there was low demand for recycled steel, would companies manufacture it in such high volumes? Definitely not.

Facts don’t lie — the E.U. 27 region recorded high demand for recycled steel from 2017 to 2022. BIR reports a 16.7 percent growth in scrap steel consumption within the E.U. 27 block. The consumption rose to 87.85 million tons in 2021.

The high steel scrap consumption indicates a high demand for recycled steel.

Moreover, the U.S. recorded an 18.3% increase in steel scrap usage in 2021, accounting for 59.4 million tons. Furthermore, the country witnessed an increase in steel scrap usage to produce virgin steel, taking the proportion of steel scrap used to 69.2%.

To help dispel this recycled steel myth, here is a table comparing crude steel production and steel scrap usage among the leading countries between 2020 and 2021:

Steel Scrap Consumption   Crude Steel Production  
Country20212020% Change20212020% Change
Republic of Korea28.29625.831+9.570.41867.079+5.0
Canada   12.97610.986+18.1

Table 1: Comparison between steel scrap consumption and crude steel production between 2020 and 2021. Source: BIR.

3. Recycled Steel Is Not Economically Important

A closeup photograph of rusty bolts and washers next to a recycling symbol and economics graphic showing a stack of gold bullion and a dollar sign with green arrows.
Despite what many people think, recycled steel is vitally important to the economy.

Let’s look at the metal recycling market as a whole to bust this myth.

According to Allied Market Research, the global metal recycling market was valued at $217 billion in 2020. It’s forecast to reach $368.7 billion in 2030, exhibiting a compound annual growth rate of 5.2% from 2021 to 2030.

A market valued at $217 billion is clearly economically important.

Narrowing down to recycled steel, here are its economic benefits:

  • Increase in a country’s GDP: Recycled steel creates employment opportunities. From steel scrap collection, sorting, and separation to the people employed in recycling facilities, the sector creates jobs across the economy. The industry was responsible for 24,507 jobs in the U.S. in 2023. As people get paid, they spend more on food, clothing, and other things, making the economy more vibrant.
  • Fostering international trade: Countries with advanced steel recycling capabilities export more recycled steel, which boosts their country’s economy. For instance, the European Union exported 19.5 million tons of steel scrap in 2021 — the highest globally. Such high exports earned the region billions of dollars, enhancing its economy significantly.
  • Sustainable investment: Steel is one of the best sustainable building materials since it reduces the need for resource extraction. Countries that embrace sustainable materials like recycled steel attract more sustainable investors, benefiting their economies.

4. Only Bigger Steel Scraps Are Recycled

A photograph of a small steel nail on the left with a large, beched ship rusting on the shore on the right. In the middle are the white letters "VS" on an orange background.
It’s a myth that only larger steel items are fit for recycling.

Although the phrase “bigger is always better” counts in many things, it’s misleading when it comes to steel recycling.

The notion that bigger steel scraps are the only ones recycled discourages people from submitting their smaller scraps for recycling.

For instance, if you have smaller steel-based household appliances like cans and sinks, you might not take them for recycling. Instead, it’s tempting to dispose of them in landfills, potentially contributing to environmental pollution and locking valuable resources away where they are unable to be cycled back into the economy.

It’s worth noting that steel recycling firms recycle any steel scrap size. From tiny objects like food cans to cars and building components, all are recycled.

In most cases, smaller is better in steel recycling. Smaller steel scraps occupy less space in the shredder and require less energy to recycle than bigger pieces. In fact, larger steel scraps are shredded to reduce their size before recycling.

5. Disposing of Scrap Steel in Landfills Is Safer

A photograph of a bulldozer moving waste on a landfill site. In the bottom right is a red circle with a diagonal line through.
Sending it to landfill is about the worst thing you can do with your scrap steel.

The large amounts of construction and demolition (C&D) waste going to landfills might partly be caused by this misconception.

For instance, 2.21 million tons of C&D waste were sent to landfills between 2018 and 2019.

Contrary to popular belief, disposing of steel scrap in landfills is a very poor outcome for the environment. It locks away vital steel, which should be used to produce new steel in the circular economy.

If the steel is contaminated with oil or hazardous chemicals, these pollutants leach out of the landfill, even if the void is properly engineered with a low permeability liner, and can damage the water environment around landfills, polluting watercourses and groundwater resources, sometimes over large areas.

The potential impacts of pollutants that can be present in contaminated steel in landfills include:

  • Impacts on the metabolic functioning of soil microorganisms.
  • Damage to aquatic life in surrounding watercourses.
  • Pollution of groundwater in underlying aquifers, rendering it unfit for human consumption or irrigation of crops.

So, taking your steel scrap to recycling facilities is the best disposal method for the environment and the circular economy.

6. Steel Recycling Is Dangerous

A closeup photograph of a metal shredder with electronic items being shredded.
While there are obvious hazards associated with the process of recycling steel, proper training and careful operation of the machinery can mitigate the risks.

Steel recycling can be dangerous if it’s not done correctly, but responsible waste operators and reprocessors ensure they have the right processes and procedures to keep their employees safe and minimize the impact of their operations on the environment.

Dealing with large plant and machinery like Electric Arc Furnaces that use high voltages can be risky. However, these risks can be minimized with proper engineering controls, written procedures, training, PPE, and the use of alarms to alert workers to potentially dangerous conditions.

Shredders present another hazard that companies and workers must be alert to.

If not operated appropriately, machinery used in the recycling process poses the following health and safety risks:

  • Accidents: From bruises, cuts, and punctures, steel recycling machinery exposes people to some obvious hazards.
  • Strains and injuries: Lifting heavy scrap pieces exposes personnel to the risk of injuries such as back strains.
  • Heat and fire: Melting steel scrap requires high-voltage electricity, and the material becomes extremely hot, which can cause burns.
  • Exposure to toxic substances: Steel scrap can be contaminated with harmful substances like asbestos, mercury, and lead. These substances are toxic if ingested or inhaled.

To mitigate the risks to personnel, steel recycling firms employ the following measures:

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

All employees must wear appropriate PPE to protect them from harm at work. The most common PPE used in these firms include:

  • Hard hats: To protect the head against falling objects that can cause cuts, concussion, or worse.
  • Protective gloves: To protect workers’ hands from bruises, cuts, burns and irritation due to handling steel scrap.
  • Eye protection: Safety glasses, goggles, and face shields to protect the eyes and face from flying debris.
  • Respirators: To prevent the inhalation of harmful substances.
  • Steel-toed boots: To prevent foot injuries from falling or rolling heavy loads.

Safe Storage and Handling

Steel scrap comes in different shapes, sizes, weights, and compositions and can expose staff to risks if not handled and stored appropriately.

As such, most steel recyclers enforce safe storage and handling practices such as the following:

  • Safe lifting techniques: These companies train their employees on safe lifting techniques to prevent strains and injuries.
  • Organizing steel scraps: Recyclers have procedures to ensure steel scrap is stored safely to prevent tripping.
  • Appropriate procedures for identifying and handling toxic substances: Companies carry out checks to identify hazardous and polluting substances, and ensure staff are trained on how to handle these safely.
  • Workplace hygiene: Recyclers enforce workplace hygiene by removing debris and water from floors to avoid tripping and slipping hazards.

Safety Training

Finally, steel recycling companies train employees on safety procedures that must be followed while at work. The training includes:

  • Appropriate PPE use: Training employees on how to use PPE like gloves, hard hats, and steel-toed boots appropriately. The training ensures all employees know how and when to wear their protective gear for safety.
  • Hazard identification and mitigation: Training on potential hazards like sharp edges, fire, heavy machinery, and toxic chemicals and how to mitigate associated risks.
  • Equipment operation: Training employees on the safe use of equipment. Only trained and authorized personnel are allowed to operate machines like forklifts, balers, and shredders.
  • Chemical handling: Training on safe handling, disposal, and storage procedures. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are used in most cases.
  • Fire safety: Fire drills to practice evacuation procedures in the event of a fire. Besides the training, companies provide fire extinguishers in strategic locations.
  • Housekeeping: Maintaining a clean and organized workspace for safety, for example keeping the floor dry to avoid slips and falls.

7. Recycled Steel Doesn’t Conserve Energy

Molten steel from a steel recycling foundry being poured into a casting. In the top left is an electric symbol surrounded by green leaves.
Contrary to the common myth, recycling steel saves a lot of energy when compared to virgin steel production.

Most people believe that since recycling steel uses a lot of energy, it doesn’t promote energy conservation initiatives for sustainability. However, this is far from the truth.

According to a study by The International Journal of Scientific Research and Management, recycling a ton (2,000 lb) of carbon steel consumes 886 kWh. In this case, the energy was used to operate an electric arc furnace to melt the steel scrap.

Compare this to the amount of energy needed to produce a ton (2,000 lb) of virgin steel and you might be surprised to learn how much higher the figure is.

According to Stanford University, manufacturing a ton (2,000 lb) of raw (or virgin) steel from iron ore consumes 24.5 × 109 J of energy. This is way more than is required for producing recycled steel.

This direct comparison between primary and secondary steel production shows that you can save a lot of energy by recycling steel compared to producing it from raw materials.

In terms of numbers, recycled steel conserves between 60 and 74 percent of the energy used to manufacture primary steel from raw materials.

8. Steel Recycling Is a Rip-Off

A smiling scrapyard owner wearing a high visibility tabard, blue hard hat, and protective gloves. Behind him are piles of scrap metal and floating in the air around him are dollar bills.
Unlike the popular myth, most scrap metal dealers are friendly and honest. It’s in everyone’s best interests to build a relationship of trust. Just phone around a few scrapyards to make sure you’re getting the best price.

If you’re worried about getting the best deal on any scrap steel you take to a scrapyard for recycling, make sure you check prices before you go. Phoning around a few yards in your area will help to give you confidence that you’re getting a fair price.

Most yards are friendly and honest, but there might be a few bad apples that help to perpetuate this myth that steel recycling is a rip-off. Avoiding yards that charge significantly less than the going rate is a smart thing to do.

At the time of writing, a typical price for scrap steel in the US would be in the region of $225 per ton, although this depends on a few factors, such as:

  • Type of scrap steel: If you take a load of scrap cast auto rotors and drums along to a scrapyard, you might get $250/ton for it, whereas taking a whole car or truck is likely to bring you much less. This is because of the processing an intact car requires, such as depolluting the vehicle by draining oils and fluids, and disassembling it.
  • Contamination: Contaminated scrap will fetch a much lower price than clean scrap, and might even be refused by a scrapyard because it presents a pollution and health and safety risk.
  • Location: Prices sometimes vary across the country, and certainly vary in different parts of the world, so ensure you do some research to find out the expected price in your area.

9. Recycled Steel Is Not Environmentally Friendly

Molten recycled steel is poured from the ladle into a mold to make a new steel product. In the bottom left are the words "Eco-friendly" in green letters.
No matter which way you look at it, the environmental impact of recycled steel is far lower than virgin steel.

You might have heard people claiming that recycling steel contributes to carbon emissions and energy consumption.

While these claims are valid, it’s worth noting that the adverse environmental consequences of manufacturing primary steel are much worse.

Virgin steel production has more serious environmental consequences than recycled steel production. For example:

  • Much higher greenhouse gas emissions: The virgin steel production process emits considerable sulfur and carbon dioxide. These are the potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and climate change. To put that into perspective, manufacturing a ton (2,000 lb) of primary steel emits 1.987 tonnes of carbon dioxide, whereas recycled steel emits just 0.357 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of steel produced.
  • Environmental degradation: Opencast mining is used to extract iron ore from the earth’s crust to manufacture new steel. This process promotes deforestation and the removal of topsoil. Consequently, it affects wildlife as animals have to relocate to safer places. Moreover, mining activities can result in pollution of the water environment, damaging the quality of rivers and lakes, and potentially rendering groundwater unfit for potable use.
  • Energy consumption: Manufacturing new steel consumes more energy than recycling steel. As a result, it contributes more toward the depletion of natural resources used to generate power.
  • Soil erosion: Clearing trees and removing topsoil leaves the landscape bare. A bare landscape is highly exposed to erosion, which can result in landslides and also cause faster runoff of rainwater, which can make flooding more likely.

Recycling steel doesn’t entail opencast mining, so its environmental impact is lower than virgin steel production.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, recycling a ton (2,000 lb) of steel prevents approximately 1.67 tons (3,340 lb) of carbon emissions.

10. Recycled Steel Doesn’t Conserve Natural Resources

An aerial photograph of an opencast iron ore mine shows a massive hole in the ground with roadways and machinery digging and transporting the ore.
A large iron ore opencast mine creates a huge scar on the landscape, degrading natural habitats and causing pollution. Recycled steel avoids this.

Natural resource conservation is crucial for a sustainable future. However, there is a myth that recycled steel doesn’t help to preserve natural resources.

This is completely wrong.

Manufacturing new steel consumes far more natural resources than secondary steel manufacture. Virgin steel requires the following resources:

  • Iron ore: Producing a ton (2,000 lb) of primary steel consumes about 1.6 tons (3,200 lb) of iron ore. Iron ore is burned to make pig iron — the primary component in steel production.
  • Coal: Coking coal is needed to generate coke for fuel in blast furnaces. The process uses approximately 1.5 tons (3,000 lb) of coal to make a ton (2,000 lb) of coke.
  • Limestone: It’s used as a flux to sinter iron ore by forming an easy-to-remove slag in the blast furnace.

Unfortunately, the above resources are non-renewable and we should do our best to preserve them for future generations. 

Recycled steel provides an excellent solution to this high resource consumption problem. Recycling a ton (2,000 lb) of steel conserves these resources in the following quantities, compared to producing virgin steel:

  • Iron ore: 1.4 tons (2,800 lb).
  • Coal: 0.8 tons (1,600 lb).
  • Limestone: 0.3 tons (600 lb).

So, recycling steel helps to conserve a large amount of natural resources.

Final Thoughts On Recycled Steel Myths

Have you fallen for any of these recycled steel myths? Let us know in the comments.

These falsehoods are not only misleading but can affect sustainability efforts by discouraging people from recycling steel and enhancing the circular economy.

Recycled steel is an extremely useful material and has many environmental and economic benefits. So, embrace its use in your construction projects to build eco-friendly structures, and protect the environment for future generations.

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