Where Does Recycled Scrap Metal Go?

Ship BuildingEver wonder what happens to enormous ships once they’ve been decommissioned? And how about trains? (You can’t very well unload one of those in the municipal dump and just walk away!) Well, these enormous contraptions could end up where most discarded metal objects go: the scrap metal recycling yard (also known as the junkyard, scrapyard, or wrecking yard.) Admittedly, enormous metal items like ships require their own specialized firms – ship breakers, as they are known. Yet the final few steps for dismantling anything metal – including the many types of metal structures we remove in the demolition industry – are similar.

Scrap Metal: How It’s Processed

Scrap metal buyers are the scavengers of our material world. They may obtain scrap metal by offering to get rid of junk – as a service to the homeowner, for instance. Smaller scrap metal buyers will take their kitty to a wrecking yard or a scrapyard. A scrapyard generally buys and sells metal objects by weight, while a wrecking yard may sell functional items, like car parts, according to their utility. So, some scrap metal is picked out and reused for other projects. Larger items, like trains, are dismantled by niche companies, such as European Metal Recycling. And large-scale scrap metal recycling operations have their own in-house scrapyards. The next stop for all recycled steel: a scrap metal processing plant.

While some pre-smelter sorting may occur, processing plants generally shred all recycled materials together and then separate the tiny metal pieces via shifting or magnetic techniques. Small amounts of rubber, wood and plastic may still be mixed in with the metal at this point.

Finally, the nearly pure scrap metal shreds are melted in extremely high-temperature furnaces. This process liquefies the metal and burns off any lingering impurities. Once it is pure, the liquid metal can be molded into new products.

The scrap metal recycling process offers many benefits, such as:

Keeping scrap materials from entering landfills. Scrap metal buyers and recyclers divert 145 million short tons from landfills.

Reducing the need for virgin resources. It takes much more energy to extract new resources than it does to reclaim them from scrap metal. The EPA has found that using scrap metal provides a 75 percent savings in energy over using virgin iron ore.

Boosting the economy. Scrap metal recycling represented $65 billion of the 2006 American economy. That same year, scrap metal buyers sold $15.7 billion of scrap overseas, which helped offset the trade deficit.

As you can see, there are many advantages to recycling scrap metal rather than sending it to the landfill. All those tiny metal shreds can be reborn into new tools, vehicles and engines. So the next time that you’re standing on the prow of a ship, consider that the steel it contains may have had a completely different previous life as a plane, a bridge or a filing cabinet.

[Photo by: Knabbey, via CC License]

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