What happens to our metal recycling?

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Welcome back to my series I’ve titled “where does our waste go.” A couple of months ago we explored our plastic waste which was the inspiration for this series. I was curious to see which materials are most likely recycled, which ones aren’t, and why so much trash ends up on our shores. Today, we will be focusing on our metal recycling.

First, metal is tricky. Household metal might be tin, aluminum, or steel. This means it has to go through an extensive sorting process to make sure there is not mixed metal in the recycling process. From here, they are melted down in their own smelting pots, and then they are ready to be turned into new items. Seems easy enough. Honestly, it is probably one of the easiest materials to recycle and can be recycled infinitely, unlike plastic and paper. And sure, glass can be recycled infinitely too, but as we learned in that video, it’s almost never the case.

At a minimum, it can take just six weeks from curbside to melting to new material and back to the shelves. Recycling metal can be done very fast and with great quality as well. Steel is actually the number one recycled material in the world. Almost all modern steel is now recycled steel.

The clear benefit of recycling metal is saving hundreds of million dollars a year. It saves time and resources and prevents us from excavating new materials for a single-use can of beans. It greatly reduces manufacturing, transport, mining, and more. Of course, this greatly reduces the carbon footprint of metal.

Although almost every type of metal can be recycled infinitely, that doesn’t mean it is recycled. Currently, only about 30% of metal is recycled. Broken down it is about 48% of aluminum and 63% of steel which is pretty good, at least in the US. Though, of the 250 million tons of waste that enter the waste stream in the US, metal only makes up about 8.4%.

So, metal is better than plastic and glass, but why is it more not recycled? Why especially since it’s quality never degrades and it is such a quick and relatively easy process?

It boils down to a few reasons:

1. Of course, as we explored in the other two videos, contamination. Not rinsing your cans and then junk hardening to it makes it very hard for machines to get them clean and they end up in the trash

2. The ever-growing complexity of modern products like cell-phones for example. They contain over 40 different elements which make extraction incredibly hard. Other mixed materials like a hand pump soap dispensers, toothpaste tubes, and more fall into this category. Though, when it is just metal plus one or two other materials, it can be possible. For example, paper labels or plastic stickers on metal can are easy to remove.

3. Not enough recycling education. Consumers being unaware of how to recycle properly and even being unaware that they can *pun intended* recycle. If you want to learn more about recycling in your area, there is an interactive map linked here. This helps you find metal recycling laws in your area and can help you set up a program if your area doesn’t already have one.

4. Composites and alloys are very difficult to recycle as they are a combination of different metals.

A stark difference though is that unlike plastic and glass, it is more beneficial to recycle metal than it is to extract the new metal. It is actually cheaper to recycle it. Aluminum is so profitable that some companies will give customers money for their cans back.

There are some clear things we can do as consumers to help the recycling process:

  1. First and foremost, as always, clean out your recyclables before throwing them in the bin. Dirty items may end up in the landfill and if it doesn’t make it to the landfill, perhaps the ocean

  2. See if your facility requires you to sort your metal. Some areas might not take unsorted metals or they might just take them to landfills. Call or email the facility of your area to see how else you can help ensure more of your metal gets recycled

  3. Don’t put good resources into the trash. It is that simple. Just recycle!

  4. Of course, reduce what you can. I’m with you when it comes to cans. It is easily our most recycled item, but that is the only way we can get beans right now and that is a staple in our diet, but if you can avoid buying extra sodas and making sure to use what you have first

Thank you so much for reading, if you want to check out the video version, you can find it here (goes live on 10 August).

Don't forget to check out the versions for glass (video and blog post) and plastic (video and blog post), too!

As always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


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Hey there! Thanks for stopping by! 

My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...


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