Where Does It Go?

Have you ever wondered what happens to the scrap metals that you recycle? If you recycle a can, is the metal used for more cans, or does it get made into a car… or a skyscraper? How are large, complex items like cars recycled since they contain so many different materials?

Metals that are reclaimed by recycling are reused in a wide range of new products which keeps these important materials out of landfills. Commodities such as steel, aluminum, copper, lead, and precious metals are valuable resources that are being reused every day.

Metal Recycling Process

Sorting & Dismantling

The first step in the recycling process is sorting and dismantling. This means that different types of materials and objects are sorted, taken apart, and separated for proper recycling.

Shredding & Shearing

Once sorted as much as possible by hand, items are fed into a mechanical shredder so that the various materials from products can be easily separated. Shredding also helps to break down large items into smaller, more uniform pieces. The shredder is ideal for complex items that contain too many pieces to be dismantled efficiently by hand, such as a door from a dishwasher. Sometimes larger items may need to be sheared before shredding. Hydraulic shears use enormous pressure to cut strong, large pieces of metal into more manageable sizes.

Separation

Our shredders incorporate rotating magnetic drums to separate non-ferrous from ferrous metals. Ferrous metals contain iron, so they are magnetic, while non-ferrous metals are not. After shredding, items are further separated by hand, with electrical currents, high-pressure air flow, or liquid floating systems.

Baling

The various shredded and separated materials are compacted into large bales, gaylord-style bulk boxes, or totes for easy handling and transportation. The reclaimed materials are sold to industries who manufacture new products.

What Happens to the Metals After Recycling?

Aluminum

Because aluminum is so recyclable, it is often re-used for the same product for which it was originally manufactured. About 75% of the aluminum we use today has been in use since the 1880s! Aluminum is the only packaging material that completely covers the cost of its own collection and recycling.

On average, each person in the US enjoys one beverage in an aluminum can every single day. This means that each day, we generate over 300 million cans that are recycled or thrown away. All these discarded cans really add up. At current rates of disposal, Americans throw away almost 3 million tons of aluminum each year.

Aluminum isn’t just used to make cans and foil. It is also used for:

  • Car engines and wheels because it is strong and lightweight.
  • High-voltage power lines, where it has been used instead of copper since 1945.
  • Muffin tins, pots, pans, and more because it’s lightweight, inexpensive, and conducts heat well.
  • Window frames, building structures, and roofs due to its strength and flexibility.
  • Motorcycle pistons, crankshafts, and crankcases because it is strong, lightweight and conducts heat well.

Copper

Copper has been used by mankind for thousands of years because it is a soft, flexible metal. Earth’s reserves of copper are still sizable but will run out quickly if we continue to use copper at the current rate of consumption. Recycled copper is so valuable that high-quality copper scrap is worth at least 95% of the value of copper from newly mined ore. Since it is less expensive to recycle copper than it is to mine new copper, recycling helps keep the cost of copper products down.

Common uses for recycled copper include:

  • Plumbing pipes and fittings because it is strong, can easily be formed into bends, can withstand high temperatures, and is resistant to high water-pressure.
  • Electrical wiring and circuits because it is an excellent conductor of electricity.
  • Roofing and gutters because it is lightweight, easy to work with, extremely durable, and visually attractive with its warm color that develops a distinctive green patina.
  • Pots and pans since it is such a good conductor of heat.

Lead

Lead has a very high recycling rate. 74% of the lead that goes into manufacturing new products is recycled lead.

80% of lead produced is used in lead-acid batteries. Since more than 95% of all used vehicle and industrial batteries are recycled every year, they are the world’s most recycled product. The high recycling rate of batteries means that 2.4 million tons of lead batteries are kept out of landfills. By recycling used batteries with a reputable recycler, you know that they will be processed responsibly and will not release harmful materials into the environment due to improper disposal.

Lead can be highly toxic. Dangers of lead poisoning include damage to the brain and nervous system, seizures, coma, reproductive problems, high blood pressure, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain. Lead was used for many years in paints, gasoline, and other household products. In the US, lead-based paints were banned in 1978 and leaded gasoline was banned in 1996. Lead-acid batteries that end up in landfills are now one of the main sources of lead entering the ecosystem. This is why it’s so important to recycle any product containing lead with a responsible recycler.

Common uses for recycled lead include:

  • Electrode plates in lead-acid automobiles batteries store energy generated by a chemical reaction with the acid.
  • Lead aprons shield from X-rays, medical radiation, and nuclear waste because radiation cannot penetrate lead.
  • Fishing tackle because lead’s high density makes even very small items heavy, and its corrosion resistance is ideal for gear that frequently gets wet.

Steel & Iron (Ferrous Metals)

Any metal containing iron is referred to as a ferrous metal. Steel is an alloy of iron that contains carbon. Since pure iron is a soft metal, carbon is almost always added to iron to make steel.

The steel industry has been recycling steel for more than 150 years because it is more cost-effective to recycle steel than it is to mine and process the ore needed to manufacture new steel. More than 60% of steel produced in the US comes from recycled scrap. Even though steel has such a high recycling rate, it still makes up the largest percentage of metals in municipal and industrial waste.

In the US, 69% of steel packaging (mostly cans) was recycled in 2010. The food cans that are commonly called “tin cans” are actually made of tinplate, which is steel with a very thin layer of tin to prevent corrosion. Before recycling, the protective layer of tin must be removed from steel cans to be recycled separately. Because of its strength and durability, steel is a versatile metal that plays a major part in our daily life.

Common uses for recycled steel include:

  • Cans and other “tin plate” containers.
  • Ships, trains, farm equipment and heavy machinery.
  • Nuts, bolts, nails, and screws. Railways and bridges.
  • Appliance cabinets, doors, and many other parts are frequently made of galvanized steel.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is an alloy of steel, chromium, and nickel that does not corrode or rust like ordinary steel. About 90% of obsolete products made from stainless steel are collected and recycled into new products. Since so much stainless steel is recycled, when you purchase a new stainless steel product today, it will be made of about 60% recycled material.

Some types of stainless steel are not magnetic, so unlike regular steel, it can’t always be easily separated from other metals using magnets. Used in a wide variety of products and industries, the demand for stainless steel has doubled in the last ten years.

Common uses for recycled stainless steel include:

  • Stainless steel is used in auto manufacturing. It is chosen primarily because of its resistance to rust. For this reason, it is often used for bolts, brackets, and exhaust parts.
  • Buildings are frequently made using stainless steel because of its excellent strength and flexibility.
  • Cutlery and cookware are frequently made from stainless steel because it is strong and rust resistant.
  • Passenger train cars are frequently made using stainless steel because of its excellent rust resistance and strength.
  • Surgical instruments due to stainless steel’s ability to resist bacterial growth and it is easy to clean and sterilize.