Steel is the most important and widely used building material there is. It also happens to be the most recycled material that there is. Approximately 650 million tons of steel are recycled yearly, which outpaces all other materials combined. Steel is 100% recyclable, and new steel can be made from 100% recycled steel. There is also no limit to the number of times that steel can be recycled because it retains all of its properties without losing quality. This infinite recycle potential makes steel the premier “green” construction material.
The recycling process is straightforward and simple. Scrap steel is sent to steel refineries where it will be recycled. The steel is analyzed to assess the alloy makeup. Tin is removed using reverse electroplating and then the steel is melted into metallic liquid iron using electric arc furnaces and used to create new steel. The electric arc furnace has largely replaced the blast furnace in steel production. This shift has contributed to a revolutionary change in the steel making process that is roughly 60% more efficient than it was 50 years ago. The electric arc furnace, or EAF, has the ability to use recycled steel and electricity while consuming far fewer resources. Blast furnaces require fifty times more coal and twelve times more limestone than the electric arc furnace.
Each successive recycle of steel saves both energy and raw materials, including iron ore, coal and limestone. For every 1,200 pounds of steel created, steel recycling is responsible for conserving 1,600 pounds of coal, 3,000 pounds of iron ore and 250 pounds of limestone.
Recycling steel also conserves landfill space. Landfills have increased in size over the past several decades, but recent estimates show that material recovery and recycle could reduce landfill space by 4,000 acres per year. Recycling also reduces greenhouse emissions. Recycled materials reduce energy use and can be burned in place of fossil fuels. For example, making steel cans from recycled steel rather than starting from scratch with virgin materials reduces the total energy usage by upwards of 75%. This is the reason why most steel currently in use contains at least 20% recycled scrap content. Scrap is absolutely essential to the efficient production of new steel. Over the past 30 years, more than a billion tons of steel have been scrapped and recycled. During that time, the steel industry has been able to effectively reduce its energy footprint by nearly one-third.
Recycling construction materials has economic benefits, as well. The recycling industry creates more jobs than landfill disposal, which helps fuel local economies. It is also helps drive down costs associated with construction projects, like waste disposal costs, transportation costs and the costs of purchasing new materials, allowing companies to create more jobs. Companies that adopt policies that embrace steel recovery and recycle also become more able to comply with modern construction standards and rating systems, and tend to see positive changes in their public perception.