Steel Away

November 6, 1998

By Michael Jessen

What's the most recycled material in North America? If you guessed paper, sorry, you're wrong. The correct answer is steel.

Yes, steel - the material that is made into cans, automobiles, appliances, construction materials and other products -- is the recycling leader with an overall recycling rate of 65%. In 1997, more than 70 million tons of steel scrap were recycled, according to the Steel Recycling Institute.

It shouldn't be surprising that steel is the number 1 recycled material since the continent's original recycler is the scrap dealer. Once a man who collected junk on the street, the scrap business has turned into a billion dollar industry.

Steel is a unique material because it always contains recycled steel. Recycling is an integral part of the steelmaking process because the use of steel scrap lowers the total cost of producing new steel. It is always cheaper to recycle steel than to mine virgin ore and move it through the process of making new steel.

Besides saving landfill space, recycling steel also saves valuable energy and natural resources. Each year, steel recycling saves the energy equivalent to electrically power about 18 million homes for 12 months. When one ton of steel is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved

To buy steel is to "buy recycled." The term "buy recycled" refers to ways that you can help complete the recycling loop through buying products that are made of recycled materials. When you buy a steel product, whether it's a paper clip, an appliance, or a steel-framed home, you can be sure you're "buying recycled." Since new steel is always made with old steel, steel products have contained recycled steel for decades.

What's more, all new steel products made from recycled steel can be recycled again at the end of their useful lives. Used steel cans can be recycled into part of a guard rail, which may one day be recycled into an appliance.

You may not realize it, but you probably use at least one steel can every day. The familiar "tin" can has been part of our society for more than a century. Steel cans package a variety of products, including fruits, vegetables, soups, sauces, meats, condiments, juice, pet food, cleaning products, paint, shoe polish, adhesive bandages, coffee and even cookies.

How do you prepare steel cans for recycling? Basically, all you have to do is empty them. For sanitary reasons, you should rinse steel food cans in leftover dishwater or in empty spaces in your dishwasher. Paper labels should be removed and recycled with other mixed paper.

Did you know that when empty, aerosol and paint containers are completely recyclable, just like any other steel can? The key word is empty. It's okay to have a thin skin of dried paint in a paint can. Aerosol cans should be completely empty of product.

Steel from appliances, automobiles and construction materials is routinely collected and processed through a national commercial network of ferrous scrap processors who prepare old steel for use by steel mills and foundries. For the location of your nearest processor, look in the yellow pages under Scrap Metal or Recycling Centres or call your local regional district waste management department.

In 1997, 46 million appliances were recycled yielding more than 2.3 million tons of steel. Of the more than 13 million tons of steel recycled from automobiles in 1997, 1.8 million tons went back to the auto industry to produce new cars.

Steel recycling starts in the home. Restaurants, hotels, office and school cafeterias, shopping malls, hospitals and senior citizen complexes can also collect and recycle their steel cans. By saying Yes I Can, you can help assure that steel remains our most recycled material.

TRASH TIP - In 1997, the steel industry remelted more than 20 billion steel cans into new products. That's about 630 cans recycled every second. The amount of steel recovered through recycled packaging in 1997 (more than 1.7 million tons) would yield enough steel to build 200 Eiffel Towers.

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