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Steel is a versatile commodity that plays a major part in everyday life—it is used in applications ranging from food cans and household containers to automobiles and office buildings. Steel makes up the largest category of metals in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. For many years, steel has been a commonly recycled material in North America and throughout the world. Efficiently managing and recycling used steel products is important to maximize the utility of this commodity.
Just the Facts

  • More than 1,000 facilities in the United States make and process steel, and most are located in the Great Lakes region and the South.

  • Two out of every three pounds of new steel are produced from recycled steel.

  • In 2010, the United States generated nearly 3 million tons of steel as containers and packaging in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. More than 14 million tons of steel was used in durable goods.

  • The total amount of steel generated in 2010 — about 17 million tons — represented 6.8 percent of total MSW generation.

  • The amount of ferrous metals (iron and steel) generated as MSW has declined about 5 percent in the past 50 years.

  • Other sources of steel in the MSW stream are containers and packaging, such as food packaging and aerosol cans.

  • Large quantities of steel and other ferrous metals are found in construction materials and transportation products, such as automobiles, locomotives, and ships, but these are not included in calculations of MSW. These non-MSW products are, however, highly recycled. In 2011, 92 percent of steel generated as waste was recovered and recycled by the steel industry, according to the Steel Recycling Institute.

How Steel is Made

Steel is an alloy of iron, produced by heating coke, iron ore, and limestone in a blast furnace. It is produced in one of two ways: the basic oxygen furnace (BOF) process and the electric arc furnace (EAF) process.

The BOF process uses 25 to 35 percent recovered steel to make new steel. It combines molten iron from blast furnaces with an injection of very pure oxygen, which causes a chemical reaction. Products such as automotive fenders, refrigerator encasements, soup cans, pails, and industrial drums are made with this type of steel. BOF steel is ideal for these applications because of its "drawability," or ability to be flattened into sheets.

The EAF process uses virtually 100 percent recovered steel to make new steel. Scrap steel is melted and refined by passing an electric current from electrodes through the material. Products such as structural beams, steel plates, and reinforcement bars are made with this type of steel because it is so strong.

How Steel is Recycled

Steel cans from MSW and other steel recyclables are usually collected from the curbside, drop-off sites, or multi-material buyback centers. The steel is then hauled to a material recovery facility, where workers separate it from other recyclables and crush it in to large bales. The bales are shipped to steel mills or foundries, where they are combined with other steel scrap and melted in a furnace to make new steel.

Benefits of Steel Recycling

The steel industry in North America has been recycling steel scrap for more than 150 years. The steel industry needs scrap to produce new steel, which ensures that all steel products contain anywhere from 25 percent up to 100 percent recycled content. It also is cheaper to recycle steel than it is to mine virgin ore to manufacture new steel. New ore is still mined in order to supplement production of steel and steel products.

Recovering steel not only saves money, but also dramatically reduces energy consumption, compared to making steel from virgin materials. In turn, this reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released in to the air during processing and manufacturing steel from virgin ore.