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February 2007

Steel recycling in America

If legislation were needed to improve the recycling rate of steel in the United States, the industry itself would put forward a request, says Bill Heenan, the president of the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI).

There is approximately 100 million tons of new steel produced annually in the United Sates and 80 million tons of it is recycled annually.

“There is legislation that mandates that you cannot landfill certain products that contain steel,” says Heenan. “Many states ban the landfill of appliances, which is an incentive for many people to recycle. We don’t need legislation to do that. We’re the greenest industry [steel] in the world and the economic model is there to support it.

“We save a lot of precious raw materials by using scrap rather than virgin materials,” he adds. “Scrap is the number one ingredient in the manufacturing of new steel. It’s a natural for steel and other metals to be recycled. It is something we don’t need enforced.”

Legislation that would be welcomed would be laws similar to Pennsylvania’s Act 101, an Act passed in the 1980s and considered to be the basis for much of the nation’s recycling legislation for the collection of cans and bottles.

“The legislation stated that if you had a community of 5,000 people or more, you are required to provide a curbside recycling service,” says Heenan. “You didn’t have to take everything, but it required that five out of eight items on the prescribed list had to be included in any curbside program.

“We’re getting better and better at recycling,” he adds. “Last year as a nation, we recycled almost 33 percent of the municipal waste stream. Twenty-five years ago it was less than five percent. We still have a long way to go. Legislation for steel isn’t key. There are other products that need help and we need the government to provide that help.”

“The biggest source of scrap metal is construction and demolition (C&D) debris,” says Heenan. “We look at the Golden Gate Bridge as ‘scrap in inventory’. It is estimated that about 4.9 billion tons of steel are in commerce today. In general, we don’t get back every pound of steel - some of it is inaccessible,” he added, “but anything that we do recover is guaranteed to be recycled.”

The second highest source of scrap is old cars and vehicles. Old cars are either processed through scrap yards or directly sent to the nearly 200 shredding facilities in the United States.

“These are the original recyclers,” says Heenan. “They send the scrap back to our steel mills.”

Whether it is C&D debris or old cars and appliances, the connections between the construction industry, scrap yards, shredders and the steel mills are well established.

Steel from households is basically cans – steel cans with a very thin layer of tin, old pots and pans, utensils and other items, all of which are defined as durable items.

Should these items enter the waste stream, they can be sorted from the trash, if processed, by machinery using magnets.

“The key is getting all that scrap that comes out of households and peddlers are helping us,” says Heenan. “We are also aided by stores that collect old appliances when delivering new ones. About 70 percent of the population has curbside recycling and we make sure recycling programs have steel included. Over 6 out of 10 cans are currently being recycled.”

In terms of supporting and promoting the steel recycling industry, Heenan says governments can play a role in leveling the playing field and providing tax credits to invest in new equipment. “The recycling community would be very receptive to these initiatives,” he says.

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