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A Complete Guide to Scrap Metal Recycling – Resource Page

All products and materials in our societies have two possible outcomes once their use lapses: either they get thrown away or they get recycled. Many of the various metals and alloys we use get recycled, entering our product supply chains again. Metals are highly recyclable as long as they can be recovered and separated, and there is a global industry dedicated to this task. With the world continually seeing a global rise in demand for metals, the scrap metal recycling industry remains highly important.  Let’s take a look at the crucial activity that is scrap metal recycling and dive into its ins and outs.

Understanding Scrap Metal Recycling

Scrap metal recycling is the process of taking metal that is the byproduct of various industries and products at the end of its life. These include offcuts from manufacturing as well as old cars and appliances.  They are then melted again to produce the raw material for a wide range of processes and uses. Metal that would otherwise be useless and destined for the landfill is recovered and reintroduced into the world as new material. Scrap metal recycling is anchored on the inherent resilience of metals. They do not lose their core properties despite being subjected to melting in extremely high temperatures. In essence, this makes them infinitely recyclable.

A Brief History of Scrap Metal Recycling

When it comes to scrap metal recycling’s history, the best evidence we have points to ancient civilizations such as the Romans practicing some form of metal recycling. The use of metals back then, however, pales in comparison to the amounts we mine and consume today.  Recycling back then would have been on a far more limited scale. On the other hand, scrap metal recycling in its current form can largely trace its roots to the Industrial Revolution when the world’s production and use of metals began to increase massively.  Here’s a brief overview of its history.

  • Throughout many periods in history, events involving scarcity (especially in times of war) often drove people to melt down various metal objects into more useful items and building materials.
  • A few notable episodes in the case of the United States include the Civil War and the First and Second World Wars. During those periods, metal suddenly became scarce and in demand. There was a massive need to manufacture weapons, vehicles, and others to support the war effort.
  • The rise of the environmental movement in the latter half of the 20th century was the other significant driver for scrap metal recycling. The world started to see the negative effects that arose out of a consumerist, surplus-oriented lifestyle, triggering a rethink of how waste is generated and how it can be reduced.
  • The process of scrap metal recycling continues to evolve in the 21st along with the evolution of the technologies we use. The seemingly well-established global scrap metal recycling industry continues to grapple with many crucial questions and issues. One of the most pressing is the quest for greater recovery rates while reducing carbon footprint in terms of energy consumption.
  • The industry also continues to explore new technologies that can increase efficiency. With the increased use of new metals such as lithium and other rare earth metals in batteries and electronics, there is an increasing need for recycling technologies to cater to this area.

A Key Distinction in Scrap Metal Recycling

The world of scrap metal recycling revolves around a key distinction: ferrous vs. non-ferrous metals. Ferrous metals are those that primarily contain iron, while non-ferrous metals are essentially everything else that is not primarily iron-based. Iron is commonly used as various alloys together with other metals and elements like carbon. One of the most common forms out there is steel.  Steel is easily one of the world’s most important materials. It is used in most if not all, industries, from manufacturing and construction to transport, appliances, and more. It is estimated that around 13 million tons of steel used in the US every year comes from recycled vehicles. Nonferrous metals are just as important. The world’s technological infrastructure relies heavily on a range of metals, particularly Copper. The latter is valued in electrical devices and electronics for its high conductivity and low cost.  Aluminum is just as ubiquitous. Being the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, it is used in everything from airplanes to drink cans. Aluminum is also the preferred material for our power lines for its high strength and lightweight properties. Copper, aluminum, and steel make up three of the most commonly recycled metals in the world.

The Process of Scrap Metal Recycling

1. Collection

The process of scrap metal recycling begins at its sources. Various industrial processes are a constant source of clean scrap metal, known as busheling. The latter is the leftover from manufacturing processes like stamping and forming.  Construction and demolition of buildings also produce a large amount of scrap steel as well as scrapping of vehicles like cars, planes, and ships. Household waste contributes to its share of scrap material, from packaging to appliances. These are collected by various agents such as scrap dealers and public recycling services.

2. Sorting

Ferrous and non-ferrous metals each have their dedicated recycling processes. It is important to sort them out beforehand.  Techniques vary by scale. Shops that disassemble and process electronics, for example, have teams of workers that sort metal types. Large scrapyards, on the other hand, commonly employ large magnets to separate ferrous metals, and various separators for non-ferrous metals.

3. Processing

Regardless of the type of initial collection point, scrap metal invariably goes to scrap yards. Modern scrap yards typically feature one or two shredders at the heart of their operation.  These shredders are large and complex and typically integrate a number of processes. Scrap is fed to the shredders, after which ferrous and non-ferrous metals are separated from non-metallic scrap. The extracted and sorted scrap metal is then transported to steel mills and foundries both within the US and in overseas locations in shredded form for more efficient transport. These steel mills and foundries use furnaces to melt the scrap metal, with Electric Arc Furnaces being the preferred furnace for melting scrap.

4. Purification

Scrap metal invariably contains impurities that can affect the strength of materials. These impurities are removed.  In the case of scrap metal, one of the most common processes employed is electrolysis. Various additives may also be employed depending on the type of metal and intended use.

5. Solidifying and Transportation

Once a batch of molten scrap metal is deemed to meet quality and purity specifications, it is then cast and solidified.

Recycled metal is usually cast into blocks called ingots for ease of transport. It will then go on to become raw materials in various manufacturing and industrial processes.

A common practice in the modern world, scrap metal recycling has numerous benefits both economically and environmentally. This is because scrap metal can be used and reused again and again.  In 2021 alone, some 46.7 million metric tons of iron and steel were recycled from scrap in the United States. This makes the country one of the leading exporters of steel scrap globally, second only to the European Union. Recycling scrap metal, even on a small scale at home or school, can usher in plenty of advantages. It can make the world a better place, one scrap metal at a time. Here are some of its many benefits:

1. Environmental Benefits

The impacts of mining and manufacturing metal can take a toll on the environment, significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and depleting energy resources.  Doing scrap metal recycling can minimize these environmental ramifications. It can lessen pollution that often affects soil and waterways as well as reduce the amount of harmful gases being released into the atmosphere. The basic metal industry accounts for approximately 12% of the world industrial sector energy usage, according to the data from the International Energy Agency. Reusing and recycling scrap metal can help conserve energy.

2. Economic Benefits

It is not often as apparent as its environmental effects but scrap metal recycling can also do a lot for the economy. In fact, the industry contributed almost $110 billion to the economy in 2019. The recycling industries are also known to employ approximately 16,000 people in 2021. While not everyone is directly employed by scrap metal recycling firms, many people get to work in companies that provide a variety of services, machinery, and tools to processors. The scrap metal recycling industry also generated billions of tax revenues for federal, state, and local governments, amounting to $6.3 billion annually.

3. Social Benefits

Recycling scrap metal has done a lot to cultivate community involvement and awareness. Many firms in the recycling industry host community events as a way to give back to the community. Some are in the form of donations and partnerships with local facilities. This helps spread awareness about scrap metal recycling, which inspires involvement and support from the community. It promotes the recycling industry and the myriad of benefits that it offers.

Challenges in Scrap Metal Recycling

While there are numerous benefits to recycling scrap metal, it is not without its fair share of challenges. The following are just some of the hurdles the industry faces:

1. Contamination and Quality Issues

The scrap metal recycling industry often struggles to maintain the quality of recycled metals. This is because impurities like chemicals, dirt, and non-metallic materials may find their way into the recycling stream.  Contaminations like this can affect the quality of recycled metals, which can eventually lessen the value of recycled metals.

2. Regulatory and Policy Challenges

Environmental laws and regulations continuously evolve, which shapes the landscape in which many industries operate. This includes the scrap metal recycling industry.  Many of these regulations can be challenging, requiring firms and yards to monitor their facilities constantly and ensure that adjustments are made to procedures. This helps them meet the regulatory and policy changes.  It is also not uncommon to commit financial investments that make a dent in the industry’s pockets just to meet changing requirements.

3. Technological Challenges

As with any other industry, the scrap metal recycling sector must constantly find ways to keep up with the changing world. This includes modernizing some of their processes by leveraging the power of technology.  One of the most common technological innovations in recycling is the use of advanced waste treatment processes, often by combining mechanical sorting with biological treatment. This can maximize the extraction process of valuable materials, effectively separating them from mixed waste in a more efficient way.

How to Participate in Scrap Metal Recycling

The positive effects of the scrap metal industry cannot be underestimated. However, its efforts should be extended to the community at large to leave a greater impact.  It is something that everyone can take part in. Individuals, communities, businesses, and even the government sector can get involved and do their part, one step at a time.

For Individuals

If you are looking to collect scrap metal, whether for selling or simply doing your part for the environment, the best place to start is at home. You may want to start by looking for old metal products in your house.  This includes damaged gutters, chairs, tables, bicycles, fixtures, lawnmowers, and even musical instruments. Some appliances have copper wires which you can also collect. Once you have collected enough of them, you can start sorting them out and organizing them according to their types and quality. You may want to focus more on copper and aluminum as these types of metal are often highly valued.  If you want to be more thorough about the selection and sorting process, you can train your eyes to look for non-ferrous metals. They do not contain iron in them, which makes them more valuable. Non-ferrous metals include lead, brass, and zinc. Your work won’t end in sorting and organizing your gathered metals. It is important to make sure that they are properly stored and protected. Avoid storing them in places where they get exposed to water and oxygen as this can cause them to rust.

For Businesses

Businesses in various will find their biggest challenge when it comes to doing their part for the environment is in managing scrap metal waste.  Reducing such waste may be hard but it is quite possible. All they need is a solid strategy to help them implement better metal waste reduction and management. They may start their sustainability efforts with a waste audit. Businesses should find out how much metal waste they currently have. They can also evaluate their workplaces and gather specific data about waste practices.  This will help them identify effective ways to address the scrap metal waste issue and work towards practical steps in solving it. One of the simple ways to manage scrap metal waste is to recycle them. Establishing a metal recycling program and partnering with a reputable metal recycling firm is the best way to go for big businesses.  For smaller ones, educating the staff and employees about the importance of metal recycling and the role it plays in sustainability can go a long way to getting them engaged and actively joining recycling efforts.

Community and Government Roles

Businesses and individuals are not the only ones who can contribute to improved sustainability practices and environmental efforts. It is also something that communities and governments can support. In communities, local officials may direct their efforts by raising awareness about the importance of recycling. Even something as simple as creating an ultimate guide to recycling and publishing it on local papers, news sites, and even the city’s website and social pages can already be of great help to spreading awareness.  The local government may also want to consider creating and sending out newsletters, covering important topics on scrap metal recycling. Another way to do so is to hand out flyers or conduct community consultations to gauge just how much the locals know about the benefits of recycling. For more practical solutions, placing recycling bins in public areas can be a huge help. This will train people to segregate their waste properly, making it easier for garbage collectors to dispose of the waste in more appropriate ways. This includes recycling scrap metals.


As the growing concern for waste management and climate change takes center stage all over the globe, the need for recycling and other sustainable efforts becomes more relevant than ever. It does not only benefit the environment but also leaves positive impacts on the economic and social aspects of life. Scrap metal recycling should be a collective effort between individuals, businesses, and local communities to make its impact more substantial and lasting. Even you, dear reader, can do your part in changing the world by considering scrap metal recycling at home.


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