How selling scrap can help the environment.

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The metals recycling industry

Metals recycling is a £5.6 billion UK industry, processing ferrous and non ferrous metal scrap into vital secondary raw material for the smelting of new metals. The industry employs over 8,000 people and makes a net contribution to UK balance of trade.

Why recycle?
Virtually all metals can be recycled into high quality new metal. The process varies for different metals, but generally produces metals of equivalent quality. Thus, for example:

  • Steelmaking using the electric arc furnace process uses scrap metal as the major raw material. This method is typically used for high quality tool steels and stainless steel. Smaller quantities of scrap can also be used in basic oxygen (blast furnace) steelmaking.
  • Copper scrap is used by both primary and secondary producers, where processing methods include blast furnace, reverberatory furnace or electric arc furnace. In the latter, around 75-80 per cent raw material is scrap copper.
  • Aluminium production uses a single production method – the Hall-Héroult Process. But virgin raw materials require temperatures of around 900 C, whilst scrap aluminium melts at around 660 C.

Metals recycling protects the environment and saves energy. Using secondary raw materials means less use of natural resources which would otherwise be needed to make new metal compounds – such as iron ore in steelmaking; nickel in stainless steel; or alumina and bauxite in aluminium smelting. There are also considerable savings in energy, and reduced CO2 emissions, in production methods using recycled materials:

EU figures indicate that using recycled raw materials, including metals, cuts CO2 emissions by some 200 million tonnes every year.

There are also other environmental benefits, for example, using recycled steel to make new steel enables reductions such as:

  • 86% in air pollution
  • 40% in water use
  • 76% in water pollution

Metals recycling supplies a major worldwide industry. Manufacturing of metals continues to be one of the largest UK manufacturing sectors, employing more people, and contributing more value to the UK economy, than motor and aerospace combined. Growth in China, and to a lesser extent India, means that export markets are growing.

Thus recycled metals have significant economic value – and so scrap metal is rarely discarded or sent to landfill.

In 2005, 13 million tonnes of metal was recycled in the UK. Around 40% of this was used in the UK, and the remaining 60% exported worldwide: the UK produces considerably more scrap than is required for domestic markets.

  • ferrous scrap: 4.6 million tonnes of iron and steel and stainless steel scrap was supplied to steelworks in the UK, and 0.9 million tonnes to UK foundries; 6.1 million tonnes was exported. Major markets were Europe, particularly Spain, and Asia, particularly India. The worldwide market for ferrous scrap is predicted to continue its steady growth, which has averaged around 5% per annum over the past 12 years.
  • non-ferrous metals: over one million tonnes was processed. Approximately 45% of this was aluminium, 31% copper, and significant quantities of nickel, brass, zinc and lead. Non ferrous metals are traded on the London Metal Exchange, and therefore subject to volatility in commodity investments. UK exports topped 800,000 tonnes in 2005, a 20% increase on the previous year. Europe, China and India are the main destinations.

The UK is one of the five largest metal scrap exporting countries in the world.

Metals recycling contributes more than any other sector to UK targets for the prevention of waste through recovery of ‘end of life’ products:

  • Packaging: some 2 billion aluminium and steel cans are recycled every year.
    Vehicles: over 75% of a car is metal – nearly 90% of the target. Around half of the material processed by metal recycling shredders comes from vehicles
  • WEEE: the industry already recycles most discarded household appliances. Electronic and telecommunications goods are a significant consumer of non ferrous metals.
  • Batteries: The EU Directive comes into effect in 2008, but the metals recycling industry is already recycling most lead acid vehicle and industrial batteries.
    …and because so much of these products is metal, metal recyclers are also leading the way in research and development to separate and recycle other materials, such as glass and mixed plastics.

Metals recycling is a ‘pyramid’ industry which includes many small, family owned companies, as well as large, international businesses. Operators carry out a range of functions, often including several of the following activities, with smaller operators supplying partially or fully processed metals to larger operators and traders:

  • Collection, weighing, sorting and distribution of metals: dealing with a wide range of suppliers, including engineering industries; small traders, such as plumbers or vehicle dismantlers; local authority collection sites; and householders disposing of domestic appliances.
  • Shearing – reducing the size of large pieces of metal by cutting
  • Baling/compacting – to improve ease of handling and transportation
  • Shredding – reducing feedstock to fist-sized lumps; and separating metals from other materials using magnets and air classification methods. A large shredder can process a car in less than ten seconds.
  • Media separation – further separation of any remaining non ferrous metals using liquid density and hand or mechanical sorting methods

International metals trading – moving metals around the world