Recycled Steel Standards: Certifications and Regulations

Various recycled steel building products are laid flat, side by side, on a gray glossy surface. The words "Recycled Steel Standards: Certifications and Regulations" are at the bottom of the image in white letters. In the upper right corner is a green badge with white stars and white lettering that says "Certified."

Although recycled steel is one of the most commonly used sustainable building materials, how can you be sure that any recycled steel product you buy is up to the industry standard?

This question is quite challenging, especially now that many companies claim to offer authentic recycled steel. The best way to be sure the products you use meet the recycled steel standards is to check for relevant certifications that guarantee strict adherence to the recycling regulations.

According to SCS Global, recycled content certifications provide evidence of a commitment to environmentally conscious products and natural resource conservation.

Any recycled steel you use that fits the above definition will have been produced in an environmentally responsible way. Certification by the relevant institutions offers reassurance that any product has been produced in compliance with the rules and regulations for responsible processing and production.

In this article, I’ll discuss the standards, certifications, and regulations surrounding recycled steel’s quality. This will help you get responsibly manufactured recycled steel for your green building project. Keep reading!

The Responsible Steel International Standard

A photograph of a textured steel plate with a hand drawing the word "Responsibility" in white letters and shading a rectangle to indicate a level of responsibility.
The Responsible Steel International Standard was the first multi-stakeholder standard and certification program adopted by the steel industry.

The Responsible Steel International Standard sets forth the requirements for responsible recycled steel processing and production.

It aims to mitigate risks in the steel supply chain by ensuring responsible processing and production.

First published in November 2019, The Responsible Steel International Standard was the first multi-stakeholder standard and certification program adopted by the steel industry.

This initiative was established to foster Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) compliance in the steel production and recycling industry.

It was founded because the steel production industry has a considerable social and environmental impact. It’s responsible for up to 11 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Due to the high emissions from the steelmaking industry, The Responsible Steel International Standard was revised in 2022 to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). It also incorporates sustainable sourcing of input materials to minimize carbon emissions.

The Responsible Steel International Standard Principles

The Responsible Steel International Standard has a set of 13 principles stipulating the relevant criteria and underlying requirements for a steel-producing and recycling site to be certified.

Sites are only certified after an audit that must reveal no major non-conformities with the guiding principles.  

The 13 principles are:

  • Principle 1: Corporate Leadership.
  • Principle 2: Social, Environmental, and Governance Management Systems.
  • Principle 3: Responsible Sourcing of Input Materials.
  • Principle 4: Decommissioning and Closure.
  • Principle 5: Occupational Health and Safety.
  • Principle 6: Labor Rights.
  • Principle 7: Human Rights.
  • Principle 8: Stakeholder Engagement and Communication.
  • Principle 9: Local Communities.
  • Principle 10: Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
  • Principle 11: Noise, Emissions, Effluents, and Waste.
  • Principle 12: Waste Stewardship.
  • Principle 13: Biodiversity.

LEED Certification and Recycled Steel in Buildings

A word cloud on a blue background. In the center is the word "LEED" in the largest letters. It is surrounded by related words, such as "renewable, design, ecology, sustainable, and architecture."
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

It provides a framework for efficient, healthy, and cost-effective green building.

This green building rating system is designed to align with the project’s goals and spatial program. Consequently, there are different LEED certification requirements based on the project’s scope.

The most common LEED certification requirements are categorized as follows:

  • LEED Building Design and Construction: applies to new buildings and those undergoing substantial renovations.
  • LEED for Interior Design and Construction: applies to creating new interiors in any structure.
  • LEED Operations and Maintenance: applies to existing structures undergoing maintenance and operations upgrades.

Since its establishment in 1998, LEED certification has focused on reducing energy consumption through efficient technology and building design. However, the USGBC devised the LEED v4 in 2013, the latest addition to its green building system.

LEED v4 fosters a better user experience throughout a structure’s life cycle. This certification incorporates sustainable building materials like steel based on their recycled content.

The USGBC has set a default value of 25% recycled content for any steel product to get certified.

According to LEED v4 requirements, recycled steel contributes toward earning certification points in the following ways:

  • Performance: The material is strong and durable. Therefore, it creates long-lasting structures that help conserve natural resources by eliminating constant repairs.
  • Material and resources: recycled steel contributes to sustainable construction by conserving energy and natural resources like coal, iron ore, and limestone used to manufacture virgin steel.

Therefore, LEED certification for recycled steel will help you confirm that your product contains at least 25% recycled steel. Certification points are awarded based on a standardized performance score scale whereby:

  • 40 to 49 points: Basic certification.
  • 50 to 59 points: Silver certification.
  • 60 to 79 points: Gold certification.

Life Cycle Assessment of Recycled Steel Structures

A generic life cycle analysis diagram shows different stages of a product's life, from extraction of raw materials, design, and production to reuse, recycling, and disposal. The stages are drawn in circles of different colors, and connections are shown with arrows.
The product life cycle is a widely understood concept that examines a product’s impact throughout its life, from mining, production, and recycling to disposal and everything in between.

Created by the Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with the Society of Environmental Toxicologists and Chemists (SETAC), the Life Cycle Assessment of Recycled Steel Structures determines the environmental impact of steel structures in three sections:

  • The production of steel products
  • The use of steel products
  • Steel recycling

According to the ISO 14040/44 Standard on the life cycle assessment of recycled steel products, the whole life cycle of steel (from cradle to grave) is considered. Therefore, the environmental impact of virgin and recycled steel are not assessed separately.

The decision to combine primary and secondary steel production assessments is based on the fact that both processes are part of the life cycle of a steel product.

Under the Life Cycle Assessment of Recycled Steel Structures, the material’s efficiency is determined based on the reduce, reuse, and recycle principle.

Designing for Deconstruction and Steel Recycling

A loose pile of rusty steel girders that have been salvaged from a demolition site.
Good design can help to ensure that materials can be easily salvaged for reuse or recycling.

Designing for Deconstruction (DfD) and Steel Recycling promotes sustainability by ensuring steel structures are designed and built for easy demolition and material reuse.

The assessment incorporates all states of a building’s life — from construction to its end-of-life.

DfD aims to foster the recycling and reuse of construction materials like steel. This concept seeks to reduce waste generation from construction projects while lowering the demand for new materials.

Experienced steelwork contractors are vital in facilitating DfD construction. These professionals use their knowledge to create adaptable structures with reusable materials based on standardized regulations.

According to the American Institute of Steel Construction, the common DfD principles include:

  • Using reusable materials as a priority over recyclable ones.
  • Designing and building for preassembly, prefabrication, or modular construction for easy-to-erect components.
  • Incorporating standardized connections for efficient construction and deconstruction.
  • Minimizing material consumption.
  • Simplifying services and systems to make them more accessible for repair and replacement needs.

Green Building Standards for Recycled Steel

A person's hands holding a green building in the air. The background to the image is a pile of recycled steel rebar for reinforcing concrete.
Green building standards are crucial to providing the evidence and reassurance that building products, including recycled steel, are as eco-friendly as they might claim.

Green building standards are rating and certification systems that encourage environmentally conscious construction. They also encourage healthy performance in residential buildings.

The International Green Construction Code (IgCC) has stipulations that govern green building standards for recycled steel.

The table below shows some of the green building standards and how recycled steel meets them:

StandardRequirementsApplication to Recycled Steel
International Green Construction Code (IgCC)Energy efficiencyIndoor environment qualityEmissionsSustainable sitesRecycled steel is energy efficient and promotes indoor air quality since it doesn’t emit toxic substances.
ANSI / ASHRAE / USGBC / IESWater efficiencySustainable siteIndoor environmental qualityEnergy efficiencyRecycled steel is water and energy efficient. Moreover, it’s free of VOCs and other toxic substances that affect indoor air quality.
National Green Building Standard (ICC 700)Material and resource efficiencyEnergy efficiencySustainable sitesWater efficiencyIndoor environmental qualityRecycled steel conserves natural resources like iron ore. It also promotes sustainable sites by being water and energy-efficient. Finally, it’s free of VOCs and toxins that affect indoor air quality.

Table 1: Recycled steel and green building standards. Source: EPA

Case Studies of Sustainable Construction Projects with Recycled Steel

Roy Stibbs Elementary School in Burnaby, Canada

A photograph of the Roy Stibbs Elementary School in Burnaby, Canada. It has white walls and a green roofline. The school logo is on the front wall, which depicts people holding hands around a picture of the globe. Above the logo are the words "Ray Stibbs," and beneath it says "All hands together."
A photograph of the Roy Stibbs Elementary School in Burnaby, Canada. Image courtesy of City of Coquitlam Archives Online Search Portal.

Roy Stibbs Elementary is a kindergarten to grade 5 school in Burnaby, Canada.

The school’s classroom wing was destroyed by fire in 1993, calling for an urgent intervention.

Due to the project’s urgency, the design team demolished a nearby abandoned school for steel and other materials to rebuild the burned classroom wing.

Approximately 75% of the materials used in the project came from the demolished school.

City of Vancouver National Works Yard

A photograph of the City of Vancouver National Works Yard shows dark red recycled steel beams used to create a roof overhang for solar shading.
A photograph of the City of Vancouver National Works Yard shows dark red recycled steel beams used to create a roof overhang for solar shading. Image courtesy of OMICRON and Terry Guscott via Green Building Audio Tours.

The City of Vancouver National Works Yard is an excellent case study of a sustainable construction project with recycled steel.

The yard’s walls were built with high-volume fly ash concrete. Its steel structure has 100% recycled steel.

Moreover, 90% of construction waste was recycled to conserve landfill space.

Final Thoughts On Recycled Steel Standards

Now that you know the different recycled steel standards, certifications, and regulations, you’re on the right path to making the right decisions for your project and the environment.

You can confirm if a product is made with recycled steel by examining its labels for relevant certifications like LEED.

Finally, go for recycled steel with at least 25% recycled content if you want more LEED points for your project.

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