What do you need to know about recycling other metals?
Steel Containers may have originated in 14th century Bohemia. However, we do know for certain that in 1809 a Frenchman invented a process to package preserved food in cans. Three years later, tinplated cans were produced in Britain. Following that, In 1938 the first steel beer can was produced and so began the modern model we use today.
Most steel cans are used for food products, followed by paint, aerosols and other products. More than 600 shapes, styles and sizes of containers are used. Most food containers are made from steel—items like soup, pet food and coffee cans are all examples. Some people call these “tin cans,” probably because steel cans are usually coated with a thin layer of tin to protect the food in the can.
While other metals—like gold, silver, brass, and copper—are so valuable they are rarely thrown away, steel is the most common material recycled in the United States. Each year Americans recycle more steel than aluminum, glass, paper and plastic combined. The steel can recycling rate has skyrocketed, but the amount and percentage of steel cans in municipal solid waste has declined dramatically in the last 40 years due to lighter-weight aluminum and plastic containers replacing steel cans.
The Steel Recycling Institute reported that in 2006, 68.7 percent of steel scrap in the waste stream was recycled—more than seventy two million tons. Steel scrap comes from cars, appliances, torn-down buildings and household items like cans. Today, all new steel products are made with some recycled steel.
Recycling household steel products is extremely important, because it saves a lot of energy and reduces the need to mine for iron ore to produce new steel. In fact, it takes about 75 percent less energy to make steel from recycled materials than it does from iron ore—enough energy to power 18 million homes.
For recyclers, steel is probably the easiest material to separate from the rest of the solid waste stream. Steel is attracted to magnets, so special magnetic belts can be used to separate steel cans from other recyclables. This is a much more efficient method than hand-sorting plastics, for example.
Recycling household steel is also very simple. All you need to do is rinse the food from the cans. Years ago, scrap dealers asked people to remove the paper labels and the tops and bottoms from cans, but this is no longer necessary.
Did you know?
- A ton of recycled steel saves 2500 pounds of iron ore, 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone, the raw materials used for making new steel.
- Steel cans generally contain at least 25 percent recycled steel. Many are made from nearly 100 percent recycled content.
Steel Cans Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:
Generated: 2.3 million tons or 30 billion cans or 100 per person, per year.
Recycled: 1.54 million tons (67 percent recycling rate)
- Steel cans produced in a basic oxygen furnace can have up to 30 percent recycled content.
- Steel products produced in an electric arc furnace can have almost 100 percent recycled content.
Incinerated or Landfilled: 0.76 million tons, or 0.5 percent of discarded MSW by weight. Steel is noncombustible, so magnets remove steel cans from incinerators.
Landfill Volume: 4.03 million cubic yards, or 1 percent of landfilled MSW in 1997.
Source Reduction: Steel cans have one third less metal than 20 years ago.
- Steel mills are the largest market.
- Electric arc furnaces make steel shapes like railroad ties and bridge spans.
- Foundries use scrap to make castings and molds.
(sources: Waste Age, American Iron & Steel Institute, “Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update,” EPA Office of Solid Waste, “Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010,” Office of Solid Waste, “Scrap Specifications Circular 2007,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh, Earth 911, Energy Information Agency)
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