EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy: The Role of Recycling

As the economy metabolizes more and more metals and other raw materials, the damage mounts. Although recycling is typically justified as an economically attractive alternative to rising landfill costs, it also greatly reduces ecosystem damage.

As noted earlier, steel, copper, gold, and aluminum mining and processing account for much of the carbon emissions, pollutants, and landscape devastation associated with the materials economy. For recycling, the three materials to focus on are steel, copper, and aluminum, since the high value of gold virtually ensures that it is not discarded.

In terms of recycling potential, steelwith world output of 833 million tons per yearleads the list. Long a measure of industrialization, steel use is dominated by a few manufacturing industries, importantly automobiles and household appliances, and by the construction industry. Among the various products using steel in the United States, the highest rate of recycling is for automobiles. Cars today are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. In the United States, nearly all discarded automobiles are recycled.46

The recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 77 percent. For the construction industry, the recycling of steel beams and plates is even higher, some 95 percent; the steel used in reinforcing rods embedded in concrete, however, is not so easily recycled. For these and other construction uses, the recycling rate is 45 percent, according to the Steel Recycling Institute. For steel cans, the U.S. recycling rate in 1999 of 58 percent can be traced in part to municipal recycling campaigns launched in the late 1980s.47

In the United States, roughly 58 percent of all steel produced in 1999 was from scrap, leaving 42 percent to be produced from virgin ore. (See Figure 6-2.) Steel recycling started climbing more than a generation ago with the advent of the electric arc furnace, a highly efficient method of producing steel from scrap. Steel produced from scrap uses only one third as much energy as that produced from virgin ore. And since it does not require any mining of ore, it completely eliminates one source of environmental disruption. In the United States, Italy, and Spain, electric arc furnaces now account for half or more of all steel production. Over the last two decades, the U.S. steel industry has shifted from using largely virgin ore to feeding primarily on scrap metal.48

It is easier for countries with mature industrial economies and stable populations to get most of their steel from recycled scrap than it is for developing countries, simply because the stock of steel embedded in the economy is essentially fixed. The number of household appliances, the fleet of automobiles, and the stock of buildings is increasing little or none. In countries in the early stages of industrialization, however, the creation of infrastructurewhether factories, bridges, high-rise buildings, or transportation, including automobiles, buses, and rail carsleaves little steel for recycling.

As the U.S. steel industry has shifted to primary reliance on scrap, its geographic distribution has shifted. Once concentrated in western Pennsylvania, where there was an abundance of both iron ore and coal, the modern industry that uses electric arc minimills feeding on scrap is widely scattered across the country, in North Carolina, Nebraska, and Texas, for example. Minimills supply steel to local industries, enabling local communities to rely primarily on steel already in the system.49

The other metal with a pervasive environmental effect is aluminum. Some aluminum products are easily recycled. Others are not. For example, within the food industry, the aluminum foil used to package prepared frozen meals is not readily recycled. Aluminum beverage cans, by contrast, are much easier to take care of. In the United States, some 64 billion of the 102 billion aluminum cans used in 1998 were recycled. Yet this recycling rate of 63 percent is low compared with some other countries. In Japan, the current leader, 79 percent of aluminum beverage cans are recycled. Brazil is close behind, with 77 percent. In Japan, aluminum recycling is being driven by a scarcity of sites for garbage, whereas in many developing countries it is being driven by widespread unemployment.50

In Brazil, where unemployment is high, the recycling of aluminum beverage cans has become a major source of employment. An estimated 150,000 Brazilians make a living by collecting used beverage cans and taking them to recycling centers, earning $200 a month, compared with the minimum wage of $81 a month. Forty-five used cans can be traded for 1 kilogram of black beans, and 35 cans for a kilogram of rice. The system that has evolved in Brazil for recycling aluminum cans now employs more people than the automotive industry does.51

Despite the high recycling rate for cans, the overall aluminum recycling rate worldwide is not high. In the United States, the scrap share of aluminum production in 1998 was 33 percent. Roughly half of this was from scrap generated at the plants where various aluminum products are manufactured. Thus the amount recycled from consumer products containing aluminum was quite small. One reason for this is that investing aluminum in cars and airplanes is relatively recent, thus restricting the amount currently available for recycling. In contrast to worldwide steel use, which has increased little since 1973, aluminum production is still rising.52

The encouraging news is that the recycling of both steel and aluminum is increasing. The discouraging news is that neither is doing so fast enough. Far too much aluminum and steel end up in landfills.

As noted earlier, in the eco-economy societies will rely heavily on raw materials already in the system. For example, in the small, densely populated state of New Jersey, there are eight steel minimills that rely almost exclusively on scrap and 13 paper mills that use only waste paper. Collectively, these steel mills and paper plants market more than $1 billion worth of products each year, providing both local jobs and tax revenues. Ironically, these thriving steel and paper mills exist in a state that has no iron mines and little forested area.53

In an eco-economy, electric arc steel minimills that efficiently convert scrap steel into finished steel will largely replace iron mines. Advanced industrial economies will come to rely primarily on the stock of materials already in the economy rather than on virgin raw materials. For metals such as steel and aluminum, the losses through use will be minimal. With the appropriate policies, metalonce it is invested in the economycan be used indefinitely.

 Previous Table of Contents Next

46. Steel production from USGS, op. cit. note 4; automobile recycling rate from Woods, op. cit. note 10.

47. Woods, op. cit. note 10.

48. Figure 6-2 from Bill Heenan, Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, e-mail to Earth Policy Institute, spring 2001; 33 percent from Gary Gardner, "Steel Recycling Rising," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1995 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), pp. 128-29; Italy and Spain from Hal Kane, "Steel Recycling Rising Slowly," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1992 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), p. 98.

49. Minimills in Kane, op. cit. note 16, pp. 78-79; "Government, Steel Maker Reach $98 Million Environmental Settlement," Cable News Network, 20 December 2000.

50. Can recycling in the United States from The Aluminum Association, Inc., "Aluminum Can Reclamation," fact sheet (Washington, DC: 2000); Fumiko Fujisaki, "Japan Aluminum Can Recycling Ratio up to 78.5 pct," Reuters, 14 July 2000; "Brazil's Poor Hunt Aluminum Cans as Swap for Food," Reuters, 17 October 2000.

51. "Brazil's Poor Hunt Aluminum Cans," op. cit. note 50.

52. The Aluminum Association, op. cit. note 19.

53. Brenda Platt and David Morris, The Economic Benefits of Recycling (Washington, DC: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, January 1993).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute