Environmental Benefits of Using Steel

Ben O'DellHelpful Tips, Steel Industry

In an age in which there is heavy concern with the depletion of natural resources and the pollution of the environment, it might be a surprise to be informed that one of the modern world’s most-used materials is highly recyclable. Steel is the most recyclable material on earth, at a rate of 88%, a staggering statistic when compared to the rate of plastic which has a rate of only 30.9 percent (Recycling Today). The chemical composition of steel is what allows it to be reused over and over with virtually no degradation of quality or strength. It is estimated that two out of every three tons of steel are produced from old steel (Steel Works).


This article will focus on the environmental benefits of using steel in discussing the lifecycle of steel and how you can get involved in steel recycling.


The Circular Economy

Before getting into how steel is recycled, it is helpful to first understand the modern approach to the conservation of resources. In the current period, there has been a shift from a linear model of production to a circular model of production. The linear model argues for a system in which products are manufactured from raw materials and then disposed of at the end of their lives. In contrast, the circular model argues for a system in which products are intelligently designed to be sustainable, repairable, reusable and ultimately recyclable (World Steel).
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Within the idea of a circular economy, there is a frame of thought which has been labelled as Life Cycle Thinking (LCT). According to worldsteel.org, LCT is, “. . . a term that is used to describe the holistic thinking that is needed to solve society’s problems sustainably. Life cycle thinking requires us to consider the raw materials used, energy consumption, waste and emissions of a product across each phase of its life.” This view comes into play beginning with the design of a given product and has in vision the end-life of said product. Essentially, LCT is designing a product to be as efficient as possible (World Steel). From this point of view, a product can be evaluated by a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is, “. . . a holistic approach to evaluating resources, energy, and emissions as well as potential environmental impacts from all life cycle stages, including the production of materials and products, transportation, product use and end-of-life,” (Steel Recycling Institute).


The Circular Economy

Making Steel

The modern process for actually making steel from raw materials is completed in six steps either by a blast furnace or electric arc furnace. Each of these six steps are explained below (The Balance).


1. Ironmaking

In this step, raw materials consisting of iron ore, coke, and lime are mined. These initial components are melted together and the result in a molten iron mixture containing multiple impurities. It is these impurities that make iron brittle.

2. Primary Steelmaking

In this step, oxygen is blown through the molten iron which reduces the carbon content, the main impurity causing the brittle quality of iron.

3. Secondary Steelmaking

During this step, the metal is treated in order to adjust the composition. In the process, certain elements are added or removed from the metal and the temperature is changed. These things are done at different levels with different techniques depending on the function of the metal being made.

4. Continuous Casting

In this step, the molten steel is cooled until the outer edge begins to solidify. At this point, the solidified portion is removed and cut for its appropriate function.

5. Primary Forming

In this step, the previously casted steel is formed into various shapes and sizes based on future function. This process eliminates defects in the metal to achieve high quality steel.

6. Manufacturing and Fabrication

These are also considered “secondary forming.” In these processes, the metal is rolled, welded, cut, galvanized, drilled, carburized, and multiple other methods depending on the final function of the product. From here, the product is ready to be introduced into the market.

Recycling Steel

These are also considered “secondary forming.” In these processes, the metal is rolled, welded, cut, galvanized, drilled, carburized, and multiple other methods depending on the final function of the product. From here, the product is ready to be introduced into the market.
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It bears mentioning here that in the recycling process of steel, there is no loss to the integrity of the metal, and the quality of the original steel remains. World Steel estimates that 650 million metric tons of steel are recycled every year, and that more than 23 billion metric tons have been recycled since the innovation of steel production. It is also estimated that around 75% of all steel that has been made are in use today (World Steel). Because of this high rate and volume of recycling steel, the value of the raw materials used to make steel remains far beyond the lifetime of the first product it is used for.


LEED

Because of the depletion of natural resources in the modern day, there have been many organizations that have begun to regulate the consumption of natural resources. In the realm of construction, projects can now be LEED certified, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is a green building rating system which means essentially that they evaluate the environmental impact of construction projects. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, “LEED provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings” and, “. . .is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement.” LEED looks at materials involved, sustainability, and water consumption of the completed project. LEED aims to build the projects with the highest efficiency in all aspects of environmental impact.

An example of a recent LEED project is the Arthur Weisburg Family Engineering Complex at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. This building is LEED Silver Certified. In its design, the building uses sustainable features as teaching tools, such as the use of stormwater collection being used for teaching and research, and a “Green Roof” on top of the Advanced Material and Testing Laboratory which will reduce the amount of stormwater and simultaneously provide an opportunity to study the effects of stormwater on the plants which are on the roof (MU Applied Engineering Complex).


How you can get Involved

The most obvious way for you to get involved in the steel recycling process is to engage in recycling at your house. The most common steel items that you may use are steel cans.  But you can also recycle silverware and other kitchen tools that are made from steel. Be sure to not throw those things away, but make a point to get them into your recycling bin. If you have larger scraps of metal such as rebar, your local community likely has a place that you can take those, or perhaps a local scrap company would purchase the steel from you for a small price. If you have these scraps, do some research and be beneficial to your community and the environment as a whole (Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division).

Another way you can get involved is corporately. Encourage your workplace to have recycling bins readily available for day-to-day products that are used. On a bigger level, if your company is considered expanding, look to utilize steel as much as possible in construction of the new location. Steel is highly durable, easy to clean, and very sustainable. It is a great alternative other materials with similar functions.

In any case, using steel as much as possible and making sure it is recycled after use is a great boost for the environment and a step in the right direction of using less natural resources.