Steel is one of the most commonly used metals, which touches almost every aspect of our life. From food and beverage cans to massive ships and airliners - steel is used to manufacture a variety of products. But the virgin ore that is used to make this metal is finite and unless we make sure that we recycle every bit of steel and other metal scrap, we are sure to run out of it one day not too far from now.
A World without Steel: Back to Stone Age
Stone Age: The earliest known period in the history of humankind characterized by the use of stone implements and weapons. This prehistoric era was preceded by the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
If I remember my history lessons correctly (I know I should have paid more attention in class), man was yet to discover metal in stone age and hence the reliance on sharp stone tools and implements to hunt,
cut, build, entertain, and whatever else they did at that time.
Of course, human culture has gone through massive evolution since then and thankfully so. Can you imagine having no airplanes to fly you from one end of the world to another? No cars to ferry you around town? No railroads, no skyscrapers, no giant-sized vessels, no computers, no toasters, no ovens, and believe it or not no cans either.
One of the most commonly used metals of our times is steel. With its unique combination of strength, pliability, and versatility, it’s no surprise that steel formed the backbone of the industrial revolution.
Things have come to a stage where steel touches every aspect of our life – from the way we eat and drink to the way we travel.
According to the World Steel Association, steel is one of the key drivers of economic growth considering its value for industries as diverse as automotive, construction, transport, power, and machine goods. In fact, the steel industry is directly or indirectly responsible for the employment of more than 50 million people.
Steel, steel everywhere
As things stand right now, it’s literally steel, steel everywhere you look. The production of crude steel has increased many times over from the 1900âs when it stood at 28.3 megatons (Mt). By 2001, the world was producing 851 Mt of crude steel, which increased to 1,607 Mt in 2013.
The story these numbers tell is as clear as can be - our reliance on and consumption of steel has increased manifold since the time it was invented in 1810. In fact, the World Steel Association pegged our per capita average steel consumption at 217 kg in 2012.
We’re lucky that there’s a free flow of this metal and in fact other metals and resources to feed our growing basket of demands. But have you ever thought for how long? If you think we’ve infinite supply of these resources, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee beans people.
Here’s the reality. Virgin ores that we use to make metals like steel are finite. We’ve been mining these metal ores from the earth’s core for centuries and the time is not far away when we’ll run out of them.
To help put things in perspective, there’s a concept called ‘peak metal’ used to describe that point when the extraction of virgin ore will reach its maximum potential.
The bad news is that point has already been reached for many metals. The good news is that unlike other resources like oil, metal can be recycled. Thus the need of the hour is a two-pronged approach to metal conservation – end the mindless extraction of virgin ore and recycle as much metal as you can.
How recycling can save the day
Like I mentioned, almost all types of metal have the capacity to be recycled. Steel is probably one of the most sustainable metals in that sense and can be recycled over and over again. There’s no limit to the number of times steel can be recycled.
Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know ’80-90% of all the steel ever produced is still in use today, according to the website of the Can Manufacturers Institute. In fact, steel is North America’s most widely recycled material ahead of paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic.
According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling industries, Inc., about 75 million metric tons of iron and steel scrap was processed in the United States in 2012. Further, more than 60 percent of the total steel produced in the country was manufactured from recycled scrap.
Here’s the real clincher: recycling steel requires 60 percent less energy than producing it from virgin iron ore and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 58 percent.
Admittedly, we’re doing our bit by making sure millions of tons of steel and other metal scrap is collected, recycled and made available to the manufacturing industry for reuse every year. From your local scrap yards to nationwide scrap recycling chains like SIMS Metal Management, many organizations are involved in these efforts.
But a lot more needs to be done. Every bit of recyclable metal should be recycled or the day is not far when we’ll well and truly run out of them.