Wednesday, July 29, 1992

Steel is Easiest Material to Recycle

The wide availability and low cost of scrap steel may be behind its odd status as the nation’s most reused material but still one often omitted from community recycling programs.

A campaign launched last week offers benefits to society and the environment if it accomplishes its goal of making consumers as aware of the value of old steel as they are of aluminum, paper, glass and plastic.

It really is inexcusable ever to put iron and steel into a landfill. They are endlessly reusable. The car you are driving today - or even that can of soup - may contain steel originally made into a steam locomotive in the 1800s. Since the early 1900s, no new steel has been manufactured without some old steel.

This metal in products such as automobiles, cans and appliances usually contains about 25 percent recycled matter, while in large items, such as beams and other structural components, it could be nearly 100 percent reprocessed. In 1990, U.S. companies melted down more cars than the Big Three made.

Despite the steel industry’s admirable efforts at recapturing its goods at an annual rate equaling 66 percent of national production, considerable improvement is possible. Witness the steel-recycling rate of about 90 percent in the Columbus and Akron areas.

These two cities capitalize on the attractive quality of iron and steel being easy to separate from trash. All it takes is a magnet to pull them away from pantyhose, aluminum foil, banana peels - anything at all that someone might throw away.

At the Columbus trash-burning power plant, magnets there last year retrieved 25,525 tons of steel and iron, saving taxpayers about $500,000 that they otherwise would have had to spend for disposal of these perfectly good materials. When separation of iron-based products is so simple, it is difficult to understand why they are usually the last elements added to curbside-recycling programs. Oftentimes, people have to take them to pickup locations.

As is true of all recycling, the more inconvenient, the less likely people are to participate. Consequently, the many steel food and beverage cans used each year represent a large, frequently untapped, resource.

In 1991, Ohioans did return about 40 percent of the more than 2 billion of these cans that they used. But the most recent (1990) figures showed a steel-can-recycling rate nationwide of just 24.6 percent, although this did represent a substantial (37 percent) increase over the previous year’s rate of only 17.0 percent.

Some people might not realize that what they call “tin cans” are actually steel, with just a thin coating of tin to protect the ingredients. These account of 90 percent of the canned food market and form a major target of the steel industry’s drive to achieve a recycling rate of 66 percent for its cans by 1995.

Ohio, as the nation’s second-largest steel producer, is a focal point of the effort to promote the removal of this metal from the waste stream. A statewide program that began in Columbus last week included the formation of the Ohio Steel Recycling Partnership, whose members are a variety of companies and programs involved with steel, food, containers and recycling. Similar campaigns are under way in Washington, D.C; Sacramento, California; Tallahassee, Fla.; and London, Ontario.

The message for Americans already diverting other materials from landfills is to get the steel out - too. You can do better.

Reprinted with permission of The Columbus Dispatch.