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How To Recycle Metal: Step-by-step process

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

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How to recycle metal properly, and why metal recycling is important?

Metal is a material that, in theory, can be recycled infinitely; however, in practice, it’s a bit more complicated. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, metal recycling meets different challenges, due to social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, the process of separation, etc.

In this article, you learn all about metal recycling, including:

  1. How to recycle metal: Step-by-step process
  2. 10 common metal items & How to recycle them
  3. Metal recycling benefits
  4. FAQ:
    – Is aluminum a metal?
    – Can all metal be recycled?
    – What type of metal can (& cannot) be recycled?
    – How many times can metal be recycled?
  5. Sum up

How to recycle metal: Step-by-step process


It may vary because each municipality has different recycling facilities, but overall, recycling metals looks something like that:

1. Collection

The first step in metal recycling is the collection of the materials. Once you toss your metal waste in your recycling bin, then it goes to a recycling center.

2. Sorting

An essential step in the recycling process of metals. Once the materials reach the recycling facility, they are sorted.

Here, non-recyclable materials are pulled out, and different materials are separated. It is an automated recycling operation, which uses magnets and sensors to aid in material separation.

3. Crushing and shredding

The metals are transferred into reprocessing plants, where they are broken down into small pieces.

That also allows the process to save energy, too, since smaller pieces need less energy. Aluminum is usually crushed into sheets, and steel is converted into cubes.

4. Separation

Next, the shredded metal is placed into magnetic drums which separate the metal from non-metallic materials such as paint or plastic.

This process removes by blowing hot air through the shredded metal, ”sucking up” the impurities, similar to a vacuum.

5. Melting

The different scrap metals are melt in large furnaces. Each type of metal has a specially designed heater depending on its characteristics.

The energy required to melt and recycle metals is much less than the energy that is needed to produce metals from raw materials.

Some furnaces have fuel-efficient regenerative burners to reduce the amount of energy used and the impact on the environment. 

6. Purification

It is done to ensure the final product is of high quality and free of contaminants. One of the most common methods used for purification is electrolysis.

7. Solidify

The purified, melted metal is transferred to cool down. The metal can be solidified into a variety of shapes and sizes.

Lastly, the solid metal is sent to factories and companies that need metal.

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

10 common metal items & how to recycle them

1. Aluminum foil

Aluminum foil is very light, and if the pieces are too small, they can be lost during the recycling process. That’s why it is best to combine more of it and create a bigger ball.

Always remove any food waste from the foil, before recycling it. If the foil is mixed with other materials (candy wrappers, yogurt tops, drink boxes), separate them, if you can.

If they can’t be divided, you should throw them away. In some areas, foil combined with other elements is considered recycling contamination. (source)

2. Aluminum cans

Rinse the aluminum – if there are any liquids or food scraps inside the can, it can lead to contamination.

After that, you can put them in your recycling bin, or you can take your cans directly to a recycling facility.

You can check where you can donate your cans, too.

3. Razor blades

First, make sure that the razor blades you have are recyclable (check for the symbol for recycling on the box).

Collect your used razor blades in an empty aluminum/stainless steel can.

Once it’s full, you can either put it in your recycling bin, or you can take it directly to your local recycling center.

Make sure that the can is tightly sealed so the blades cannot fall out and injure workers. 

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

4. Steel cans

Used for the packaging of pet food, vegetable soup, canned tomatoes, etc.

Steel cans often have paper labels. You can remove them, but it’s not a must since the paper will be removed during the recycling process. 

Rinse it with water, to remove leftover food. Then, you can place it in your recycling bin.

Some locations accept steel cans in the curbside recycling program.

Find your recycling program and figure out if there are any particular directions, such as whether to wash or smash the cans.

5. Pop tabs

Ronald McDonald House is having a recycling program for pop tabs.

You can use a box or metal container, to collect pop tabs from any aluminum can (energy drinks, soup cans, etc).

Once you have a full box, you can drop off the pop tabs at:

  • their front desk 

  • in the pop tab house (located outside their front door) 

  • by mail (Address: 1700 4th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233)

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

6. Bottle caps

First, you have to determine if the cap is steel or aluminum. You can use a simple fridge magnet for that If the magnet sticks – it is steel. 

Metal lids are made of the same material as the can, so it’s okay to collect them in an empty can for recycling.

You can collect the aluminum caps inside an aluminum container and the steel caps inside a steel container.

Once it’s full, you can place it in your recycling bin. Make sure that the top is covered (you can put some tape), so the lids can’t go out.

7. Metal lids from glass jars

These lids can be from glass jars like tahini, honey, or other food products. First, consider reusing the jars for storing spices, grains, legumes, etc.

When you want to recycle it, place the metal lids inside your recycling container. 

8. Aerosol cans/Metal paint cans

If the aerosol cans have a plastic cap, remove it.

Try to use all the material from the can – shake it to see if there is still some liquid inside.

However, DO NOT try to make a hole or remove the spray nozzle on top of the can, since it can explode and hurt you.

Aerosol cans might have a different recycling program than steel food cans since some can contain hazardous ingredients.

Verify whether your local recycling facility accepts aerosol cans, by giving them a call.

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

9. Scrap metals

If you have any other scrap metals, you can bring them to a scrap yard and sell them.

The recycling market is dependent on the type of metal, and the price will depend if it’s either ferrous or nonferrous.

Keep in mind that a product needs to be at least 50 percent metal, to be qualified and sold.

Also, the prices are per pound and can fluctuate a lot.

10. Metal clothing hangers

Metal hangers are recyclable, however, their shape is problematic. They cause problems during the recycling process by getting tangled up on equipment at recycling facilities.

Try to look local places, where you can donate metal clothing hangers. Look up at thrift stores, donation centers, or dry cleaners.

Ultimately, call and ask your local recycling centers if they accept metal clothing hangers.

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

Metal recycling benefits

1) Saves energy – The usage of energy in the production of recycled metal is much smaller.

The direct energy use is decreased by 93% to produce recycled aluminum.

The highest energy usage is the melting step, which is usually performed using fossil fuel.

2) Reduces waste disposal – While aluminum recycling generates solid wastes as well, the volumes are much smaller compared to non-recycled aluminum production.

The mass of solid waste generated per ton of recycled aluminum is 85% lower than that of primary metal.

3) Reduces hazardous waste – Recycling aluminum reduces hazardous waste generation.

4) Reduces emissions – Even though aluminum recycling has air quality challenges, the numbers are drastically reduced when compared with the production of primary aluminum.

The amount of CO2 emitted per ton of metal is reduced by 95% by recycling, and CO generation is reduced by more than 99%! (source)

5) Creating jobs – Recycling and reuse of materials create jobs. Additionally, it generates local and state tax revenues. A study found that in 2016, recycling and reuse activities (in the US) accounted for:

  • 757,000 jobs
  • $36.6 billion in wages
  • $6.7 billion in tax revenues

6) You can earn money – Metal is a great material that you can recycle for money. It is usually paid by the pound. There are 2 categories of metals:

  1. Ferrous metals, which contain iron or alloys of iron, including:
    – steel, stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron
  2. Non-ferrous metals, which DOES NOT contain iron, including:
    aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin, titanium, zinc, brass, gold

Non-ferrous metals are worth a lot more per pound than ferrous metals. You can use a magnet to find out if a metal is ferrous or not. If the magnet sticks to the metal – it is ferrous.

How To Recycle Metal Properly: All You Need To Know - Almost Zero Waste

FAQ:

Is aluminum a metal?

Yes, aluminum is a very useful metal because it is very flexible and adaptable. It is versatile, lightweight, and super-strong when combined with other metals.

Aluminum is the most popular metal on our planet and the second most common metal for making things since it is easy to work into new shapes.

Aluminum is typically cheaper than other metals, such as stainless steel.

Can all metal be recycled?

ALMOST all metals can be reused and recycled into new items. However, every metal is different, and it requires a specific recycling method.

See below which metal CAN & CANNOT be recycled.

What type of metal can (& cannot) be recycled?

The most common materials that you CAN recycle are:

  • aluminum – commonly used in beverage cans
  • copper – usually found in wires, pipes, electrical equipment such as motors
  • steel – package canned foods; in construction work
  • brass – used in gold or green decorative metal objects
  • tin – “tin” cans are steel cans coated in tin
  • iron – in frying pans or other cooking items

There are a few metals that you cannot recycle, such as:

  • Uranium, Plutonium, Mercury (and objects containing Mercury) – but don’t worry; you probably won’t get your hands on these anyway (source)

How many times can metal be recycled?

Most metals can be recycled endlessly without losing the quality of the material.

But that doesn’t mean that they ARE recycled. The recycling rates of metal are not as good as we all think.

A report from the International Resource Panel shares that the recycling rates are divided into five categories:

  • 18 metals (of the 60) are with recycling rate above 50%.
  • another 3 are between 25-50%.
  • another 3 metals –> 10-25%.
  • another 2 metals –> 1-10%
  • a very large number – little (~1%) or no end-of-life recycling is occurring either because it is not economic or no suitable technology exist
Source: Recycling Rates of Metals – International Resource Panel

Sum up

Recycling, in general, can be tricky because each recycling facility accepts different materials and it can work differently.

Because of that, it is always recommendable to check your local waste management, to see what they accept and if there are any specific things you need to know.

While metal is a sustainable material, recycling is far from perfect, and we can’t fully rely on it.

The best thing you can do is to try to REDUCE the use of metal and aluminum, as much as we can, and to always choose long-lasting & reusable products.


If you have ANY additional questions, let me know in the comment section below!

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for mentioning that types of metal that can be recycled are aluminum, copper, steel, and iron. I think that if you worked in an industrial industry that used a lot of those metals it would be smart to look into recycling what you had left over because that would help you not have to worry about what to do with all of it. It would also be nice because you would be helping the environment and you could probably make some extra money from it as well, so it would be a win-win. http://www.texasportrecycling.com/sell-scrap-info/industrial-recycling

  2. I’m grateful for you helping me to understand that one of the benefits of recycling metal is that it can help reduce energy usage. My brother has a bunch of empty aluminum cans in his garage. I’ll be sure to mention to him that he should take them to a recycling facility. https://www.ranchtownrecycling.com/copper

  3. I found it interesting how you mentioned that non-recycled aluminum generates more solid waste than it’s recycled counterparts. My brother is considering looking for a recycling service because his son is considering going to construction sites and seeing if there is any metal waste that he can help dispose of to try and make some extra cash. It seems reasonable for my brother to consider finding a reputable scrap establishment that can help provide money for the metal scraps his son collects. http://www.kingscrapmetalrecycling.com.au/what-we-buy.php

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