Steel recycling on the rise

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This article is part of our special report Raw Materials.

Over a third of global steel production now comes from recycled scrap material, but recycling rates vary a lot across the globe, according to a report by the WorldWatch Institute.

According to a WorldWatch Institute analysis, more than 1.4 billion tonnes of metals (aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, lead, mercury, nickel and steel) were produced globally in 2008. This is twice as much as in the late 1970s and seven times more than in 1950s, it notes. 

Michael Renner, senior researcher at the institute, explains that rapid growth of the Chinese economy has pulled up production since the late 1990s and that China's steel production "skyrocketed from 66 million tons in 1990 to 500 million tons in 2008, accounting for 38% of the world's total". The next largest producers come far behind: Japan with 119 million tonnes and the United States with 91 million tonnes. 

The analysis underlines that energy intensity and carbon emissions of steel production vary greatly by country and depend on the share of steel produced from recycled scrap material. Recycled steel currently amounts to some 35% of total steel output and is said to save up to 75% of the energy needed to produce virgin steel.

Recycling also decreases the need for mining, which has negative environmental consequences and "involves large quantities of waste, toxics, and removal of natural vegetation," Renner notes.

Meanwhile, recycling rates vary a lot: Spain and Turkey produced nearly 90% of their steel from recycled material in 2008, followed by Italy (77%), the United States (64%), South Korea (52%), Russia/Ukraine (48%) and Germany (45%). 

The shares of recycling-based production is "considerably lower" in China, India and Brazil. In addition, the Chinese facilities remain old and inefficient, notes Renner.

Paper, glass, plastics

While metals can be recycled indefinitely without losing any of their properties, paper, for example, has a limited lifespan, as its fibres wear out.

According to paper industry figures, global pulp production was 194.2 million tonnes in 2007 and paper production 394.3 million tonnes. An average 50% of the industry's raw material came from recovered paper and board, according to the EU paper industry lobby CEPI.

Using recycled glass also uses less energy in the melting process and helps to avoid landfill waste. While glass is also infinitely 100% recyclable, its recycling rate in Europe varies between 9% in Romania and 92% in Belgium, bringing the EU average to 62%. 

As for plastics, annual global consumption of plastic materials has increased from around five million tonnes in the 1950s to more than 100 million tonnes today. The overall material recycling rate of post-consumer plastics was only 20% in 2006, with waste used for energy recovery instead (30.3%).

According to the European Commission, the "unprecedented demand for minerals" in emerging economies such as China and India is placing increasing pressure on the global supply of raw materials such as copper, iron ore and zinc, all of which are crucial for many EU industries. 

In November 2008, the Commission presented a new 'integrated strategy' for raw materials (EURACTIV 05/11/08). The EU executive suggested a three-pillar response to greater competition for natural resources, which it sees as a threat to the competitiveness of European industry:

  • Better and undistorted access to raw materials on world markets;
  • Improved conditions for raw materials extraction within Europe, and;
  • Reducing the EU's consumption of raw materials by increasing resource efficiency and recycling.

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