The Real Deal on the Metal Recycling Process

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When you think about recycling materials, you’re probably picturing sorting out plastics into bins or pulping used paper to make new ones. But recycling covers more than just paper and plastic components; reusing metal is part of the process. You may be wondering if you can recycle metal, and the answer is yes, you can.

Metal recycling is one of the most important facets of resource conservation and environmental-friendly businesses.

You may already be familiar with metal recycling in the form of aluminum can collection drives in the office. Although recycling cans is a great way to encourage employees to be eco-friendly, this is just one tiny part of the metal recycling process, a process that has far-reaching benefits for the entire planet.

What are the benefits of the metal recycling process? And how does metal recycling work?

Metal Waste in the World


Metal is one of the most heavily used construction and manufacturing materials in the world. So many products and structures rely on different types of metal to support themselves or exist. Metal wiring provides electricity to almost all buildings and communities. Metal beams and girders help keep homes and businesses intact. And metal even makes up a lot of the interior components of your smartphones and other electrical devices.

Because of its popularity as a manufacturing material, great quantities of metal waste end up in the world’s landfills. In 2018 alone, the United States generated over 25 million tons of metal waste. This metal waste could be food cans, broken electrical components and wrecked automotive parts. Without metal recycling to reduce this vast quantity, there could be serious repercussions to the environment.

Dumping metals in landfills can let them leach into the soil. From there, the metals can infiltrate into the water system, affect soil quality and eventually corrupt the entire ecosystem. The presence of metals in the environment, although naturally occurring, can quickly become harmful when vast amounts are dumped in one place.

For example, certain metals, which are harmless in small quantities, can cause major medical conditions. You probably encounter aluminum, nickel and gold in your everyday life but suffer no adverse effects. When tons of these metals are put into one place, they will almost certainly leak into the environment in concentrations much higher than what’s safe for human and animal life.

Recycling cans and the metal recycling process are also instrumental in reducing metal mining activities. When businesses recycle metal, they can off-set the immense environmental costs of metal mining. This activity has been linked to increased air contamination from their machinery as well as the chemicals released in the process. Acid seepage from the mine tailings has contaminated huge swathes of watersheds. Trace amounts of metal waste from these mines have also adversely affected entire ecosystems.

Metal recycling reduces the need to mine more metal from the earth and helps protect the environment.

Which Metals Can You Recycle?

Metals make up approximately 75 percent of all chemicals in the periodic table of elements. Most of these 94 metals aren’t compatible with the metal recycling process or are used so rarely in production that they’re not profitable to recycle. If you want to help metal recycling companies or aim to make your business more eco-friendly, you have to learn which metals can you recycle.

Metals sought after by recycling businesses generally fall under two categories: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals.

Ferrous Metals

Ferrous metals are metals that have a lot of iron in their composition. This doesn’t necessarily mean that iron composes majority of the metal, it simply means that there is a significant quantity of it. The rule is there should be enough iron in the metal to make it magnetic. Magnetism is one of the primary methods metal recycling businesses distinguish ferrous metals from non-ferrous metals.

Examples of ferrous metals include the following.

  • Cast Iron


Cast iron production is one of the earliest metallurgical methods used to mold iron. Cast iron contains between 2 and 4 percent carbon, giving it a black or dark grey color. During the Industrial Revolution, cast iron was used for automotive parts, train components, building materials and cookware. Today, cast iron skillets and stovetops are among the most common uses for cast iron due to its exceptional heating capacity.

  • Steel

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Unlike cast iron, steel has greatly reduced carbon, improving its strength and reducing brittleness. When mixed with chromium, it becomes stainless steel. Steel is ubiquitous in the construction and production industry. High-tension steel wires hold up suspension bridges, steel girders support skyscrapers and steel frames are found in cars. Around the house, your appliances and kitchen counters may be made of stainless steel.

Non-Ferrous Metals

Non-ferrous metals are sometimes more valuable in the metal recycling businesses. These metals contain little to no traces of iron, making them largely impervious to magnetic fields. Example of non-ferrous metals encountered in the metal recycling process include the following:

  • Precious Metals


Precious metals like gold, platinum and palladium end up in landfills more often than you may think. These is primarily used as a component in electronic devices. For example, gold filaments and chips are used in computer or smartphone processors. Approximately $10 billion worth of precious metals are thrown into landfill every year through electronic waste.

  • Aluminum


When you wonder if you can recycle metal, you’re probably thinking of recycling cans. Most of the cans you find in a grocery store are made of aluminum. Aside from food packaging, aluminum is usually used for kitchen products such as foil and utensils. Its low density, non-magnetic and non-sparking properties also make it an ideal component for aerospace projects.

  • Copper

Copper is one of the most valuable metals in the metal recycling business. It’s one of the best electrical conductors readily available in large quantities, making it essential for device and electrical product manufacturers. Aside from power cables, copper is also used in cookware. Copper pots and pans benefits from the metal’s antimicrobial properties which can eliminate germs and bacteria on its surface.

The Metal Recycling Process

If you want to enter the recycling business or simply curious how can you recycle metals, the process for doing so can be broken down into following steps.



The metal recycling process begins by collecting the waste materials from landfills of directly from homes and businesses. This process can be made easier if the countries or communities the business is in practice waste segregation laws. For example, Australian use different bins for different types of waste to make it easier to collect and distribute these cast-offs to the appropriate recycling business. Once the waste is collected, it’s brought to the metal recycling plant for further processing.


Waste metal is put in a conveyor belt and run under a large electromagnet. This will separate the non-ferrous metals from the ferrous metals. If the metal components are inside electronic devices or appliances, they’re broken apart first before workers sort through them to collect the metal and putting them on a conveyor belt. Once the ferrous and non-ferrous metals are separated, they’re further sorted into their specific metals to avoid cross contamination and ruining the product.


The sorted metals are put in different belts which feed into a hydraulic pressing machine. The metals are compressed into thin sheets for ease of handling. Turning them into thin sheets is essential in making the metal recycling faster because they’re easier for machines to process.


The thin sheets of metal are then fed into a heavy-duty shredding machine. This process further reduces the metal into small, thin flakes. This step will help furnaces melt them much faster and use less heat to do so. Without compression or shredding, metal recycling may take longer and use up far more energy to accomplish.



Once the metal has been shredded into fine flakes or chips, they’re fed into a large furnace. Because they’re smaller, it’s easier to heat them up and reach their melting points. During this process, specialized furnaces and processes are used to remove waste material from the metal, further purifying it. The melting process may involve remove excess carbon, bits of plastic that may have been missed during sorting and other detritus that could reduce the quality and integrity of the metal.



After the metal has been purified and reached its melting point, it will be poured into molds for ease of distribution and sale. Metal is more often shaped into bullions or blocks. These rectangular pieces of metal are ideal for packing and shipping. The metal recycling plant may choose different sizes of bullions for different weights. The recycled metal is then sold to manufacturers and other companies.

Metal recycling is just one of many ways businesses can try to reduce their impact on the environment. Eco-hotels, zero-waste retailers and sustainable restaurants are all part of the same effort. When enough businesses use the recycling process or pay attention to their carbon impact, they may bring change to their respective industries and possibly secure the future of the planet.

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