Recycling metal offers many benefits to you, the environment and society at large. First, it preserves natural resources by decreasing the raw ore we mine. It lowers emissions since recycling metal uses less energy than extracting metal from raw ore. It also reduces the waste that arrives in landfills.
On the economic side, recycling is a job creator. Incinerating 10,000 tons of waste creates just one job while recycling the same amount will generate 36 jobs. The reason you might find recycling metal so enticing is that you can make some cash in the process. Scrap metal is highly valuable, and recyclers will pay you to take it off your hands.
If you’ve got some metal scrap you can’t recycle in the blue bin, you might be wondering if you can still recycle it. Most of the time, the answer is yes. How does metal recycling work? Learn more about recyclable metals and how you can turn your scrap into new raw materials.
Is Metal Recyclable?
You know you can toss tin cans and aluminum foil in the blue bin. But is all metal recyclable?
Almost all metal is recyclable, with a few exceptions. This is great news because extracting metal from raw ore is an intensive and expensive process. As a result, scrap metal is particularly valuable to recyclers, and you can take advantage of that. You’ll do some good for the planet and make a little cash in the process.
Let’s look at some common types of metals you might consider recycling.
Is Aluminum Recyclable?
Aluminum is one of the most widely recycled metals and one of the easiest materials to recycle. Aluminum can be recycled infinitely, making it a true closed-loop material. Nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced in the U.S. is still in use today. Recycling aluminum saves more than 90% of the energy needed to make new metal. That fact, coupled with the abundance of aluminum in everything from pie tins to beverage cans, means recycled aluminum pays for the cost of its own recycling.
Your town’s recycling program won’t accept all forms of aluminum. Aluminum scrap is still easily recycled at a scrap yard.
Is Steel Recyclable?
Like aluminum, steel is infinitely recyclable and won’t lose any quality as it is reused. It’s the world’s most recycled material — it’s reused more than all other recyclables combined. The average new steel product contains 37% recycled steel, and recycling steel saves 70% of the energy required to produce new steel. Since steel is magnetic, it’s easy to separate out during the recycling process. Steel scrap can be salvaged and recycled from automobiles, home appliances and steel packaging.
Is Tin Recyclable?
Yes, tin is recyclable. The confusion comes because most household tin and tin scrap isn’t pure elemental tin. In the recycling industry, the term “tin” refers to a thin strip of metal. For example, despite the name, tin cans are primarily steel with tin plating. Luckily, this type of tin is 100% recyclable.
Elemental tin is also infinitely recyclable, like other metals. Sometimes, tin scrap is recycled back into pure tin ingots. Other times, it is used for tin-based alloys. In 2018, 31% of the tin produced was recycled, and tin recycling is a growing trend in industries that work with the material.
Metal Items That Can Be Recycled
While you might not be able to put them in your blue recycling bin, most metals can be recycled. The difference is how. The exact items you can recycle through your town or city recycling program vary. Depending on what your program accepts, the following metals can usually be placed in your blue bin:
- Aluminum cans.
- Clean aluminum foil.
- Clean disposable bakeware like pie plates, cookie sheets and lasagna trays.
- Redeemable beverage cans and can tabs.
- Clean food cans.
- Tin cans.
- Clean paint cans.
- Empty aerosol cans.
That said, recycling these items through your municipal recycling program won’t put any money in your pocket. Taking them to a scrap yard will.
If your metal items don’t fall on the above list, chances are they can still be recycled. The even better news is these items are usually the kind you can sell as scrap metal. Recyclable scrap metals include:
- Pots and pans.
- Metal shelving or patio furniture.
- Tools, wires and cables.
- Some household appliances, other than microwaves.
- Metal bed frames.
- Exercise equipment.
Metal Items That Cannot Be Recycled
Some metals that are either dangerous or unrecyclable include:
- Radioactive metal: Metals like uranium and plutonium are radioactive and not recyclable. You won’t find these materials in most people’s homes.
- Mercury: Today, mercury in household goods is rare. However, if you have old thermometers with silver fluid inside or any other mercury-containing products, don’t try to recycle them. Instead, contact your state’s hazardous waste disposal program.
- Metal fused with plastic: Certain food wrappers contain metal that’s been melted together with plastic. Squeezable juice pouches, chip bags and candy wrappers may fit the bill. An easy way to tell is if the bag pops back into its shape when you crumple it. While it is technically possible to separate the plastic from the metal, most recyclers don’t because the process is challenging and expensive.
- Dirty metal: Metal food cans that still contain food or paint and aerosol cans that still have liquid can’t be recycled as such. However, cleaning and rinsing them out usually makes them fit for your curbside program or town recycling center. Contrary to what you might think, you don’t need to remove the labels from recyclable cans. The labels will burn off during recycling.
Some Noteworthy Examples
What about specific metal products? Though people often ask if metal can be recycled, some of the other most common questions people ask us include:
- Can you recycle metal hangers? You can recycle metal hangers if you bring them to a scrap metal yard. They usually aren’t suitable for your local recycling program.
- Can you recycle metal cans? The short answer is yes. Tin and aluminum cans, paint cans and even soda cans can usually be recycled through your municipal’s recycling program, although some won’t accept paint cans. Regarding beverage cans, you might want to check if they’re redeemable in your state. If so, you’ll get a $0.05-$0.10 refund per can when you recycle them through your grocery store’s can and bottle return. You can also receive money from these by depositing them at a scrap metal yard.
- Can you recycle appliances? Certain household appliances are easy to recycle through a scrap yard. However, due to radiation, most yards won’t accept microwaves. Scrap metal recycling centers will carefully remove harmful elements from the appliance so the iron and other scrap metals can be extracted. Refrigerators, air conditioners, ovens, dishwashers, dryers and other appliances are usually recyclable at a metal scrap yard.
- Can cars be recycled? If you have a vehicle not worth repairing or selling, you can recycle it. Non-metal parts, including tires, windshield glass, seat belts, carpets and mats, car seats, rubber hoses and oil filters, can be recycled or sometimes salvaged and reused. A recycling center that specializes in automobiles will thoroughly inspect a car for any parts in good condition. The facility will then crush and shred the car body and any unusable iron and steel car parts along with it.
Cans and other household items can be recycled with the rest of your recyclable home products, but larger scrap metal should be taken to a yard.
How to Recycle Metal
While household items are pretty easy to recycle, most people are less familiar with how to recycle scrap metal. Here’s how it works.
How to Sort Metal for Recycling
First, you must determine if your local scrap metal yard will accept your scrap. In general, an item that’s at least 50% metal is worth recycling. If a piece of furniture is both metal and plastic or both metal and wood, it’s worth bringing to a yard as is. Items less than 50% metal may still be worth the trip if you can separate the metal components.
For example, a three-ring binder is mostly plastic. Detach the metal spine and binder rings, and you have some 100% metal scrap ready to sell.
Metal scrap yards sometimes specialize in non-ferrous or ferrous metals. Even if a center accepts both, you may have to sort your scrap into each category beforehand — although many yards will sort your scrap for you. If you do need to sort your scrap metal, here’s how to do it:
- Set up a sorting area: You’ll want to wait until you have a decent stash of metal scrap before bringing it to the yard. Yards pay by weight, and more material means a higher payout. Use a bin to toss scrap metal as you encounter it. Label separate containers for metals you can identify, such as steel, iron, brass, copper and aluminum. Keep your scrap somewhere indoors, like a shed or garage. Scrap metal is valuable, and leaving it out could invite theft. When you have a full bin of scrap, begin sorting.
- Identify and sort whole items: Some items can be brought in as is. For example, if you’re scrapping a car, the recycling center will sort out the different parts for you. However, you can recycle the car battery, which contains lead, and the radiator, which contains aluminum and brass, separately. Bring appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners as is. Scrap metal yards will also accept whole computer towers.
- Separate ferrous and non-ferrous metals: Ferrous metals, which contain iron, are magnetic, while non-ferrous metals aren’t. Checking your scrap metal with a magnet is a quick, easy way to sort it for recycling. Keep anything magnetic in a separate pile.
- Sort non-ferrous metals: Sometimes, facilities that accept non-ferrous metals ask you to sort them by type. Copper is reddish-brown and is found in pipes and wires. Most yellow metal is brass since gold is rarely in household scrap items. Brass is in pipe fittings and valves, doorknobs, bullet casings and faucets. Identify aluminum by its light weight and silver color. You’ll find it in cars, boats, window frames, airplanes, bicycles and wheelchairs. Go over aluminum with a magnet to ensure it doesn’t have any iron. Look for dark gray metal, which might contain lead, found in pipes and wires.
Where to Recycle Metal
Some towns and cities have a curbside recycling program. If yours is one of them, you can leave some household recyclables in a blue bin at the bottom of your driveway. Your city hall should provide you with a container. Other towns have a recycling center, where you’ll bring these items and sort them yourself.
For metal that doesn’t fit your town’s recycling program, or if you’d like to be compensated for your scrap, you can bring it to a scrap metal recycling center. The center will weigh your scrap right in front of you and pay you on the spot. View our locations to find a ferrous or non-ferrous scrap metal recycling facility near you. If you don’t live near a scrap metal yard, you may be able to arrange a pickup.
Scrap Metal Processing: How Is Metal Recycled?
If you’ve ever sold metal for scrap or are considering it, you might be curious how scrap metal is processed after you drop it off. A scrap metal recycling facility follows these seven steps:
First, scrap metal yards collect unwanted metal. The largest source of scrap metal comes from vehicles. It also comes from building materials, ships, farm equipment and households like yours. Most scrap comes to these facilities through commercial vendors, such as mechanics, manufacturers or railroad companies, which generate lots of scrap metal. Metal scrap yards will weigh materials to determine their value.
If you take your scrap to a facility that accepts both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, you may not have to sort your metals at all. The recycling center will sort the materials automatically using magnets and sensors. Or, sometimes, they use a combination of magnets and visual inspection to identify metals. Check with the scrap yard you plan on visiting to see if they sort the metals automatically or if you should come with separate bins for each type of metal.
3. Processing or Shredding
During scrap processing, metal is first compacted and shredded. First, the metal gets compressed so it can easily fit on conveyor belts. Then, aluminum gets stripped into small sheets, while steel will remain compacted in blocks. Shredded metal is easier to melt since the increased surface area lets it heat up faster. By shredding and processing the metal first, recycling facilities save energy.
Next, the metal gets melted down in large furnaces. A scrap metal recycling center will have designated furnaces for each type of metal, reaching the perfect temperature to melt it most efficiently. While this process uses considerable energy, the furnaces are fuel-efficient and still use much less than the amount of heat and energy required to extract metals from raw ore.
Melting can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. The furnace’s size, the temperature needed and the metal’s volume all affect the process’s length.
Next, the metal undergoes purification. This process ensures the final product retains its quality and removes contaminants. Electrolysis is the most common purification method. In this process, an electric current runs through the metal to trigger a chemical reaction that separates out the contaminants.
Once melted and purified, the metal travels along the conveyor belt to be cooled. As it’s cooling, it will be molded into specific shapes, like ingots, that are easy to transport and use in metal production.
7. Reentering the Market
The recycled metal is now a raw material, ready to go into production. The recycling facility transports the metal to factories and other customers. Manufacturers value recycled metals because they are usually more affordable than newly created metal. Since metal is infinitely recyclable, it has the same quality at a lower cost.
By keeping raw material costs down, recycling metal makes the metal products you buy every day more affordable. It also lowers the barrier to entry in the manufacturing industry, helping the country keep manufacturing jobs local.
Recycle Your Scrap at Liberty Iron & Metal
If you’ve got some scrap metal laying around and want an environmentally friendly way to dispose of it and make some money in the process, visit us at Liberty Iron & Metal. We have convenient locations around the Northeast and Southwest where you can get cash for scrap. Contact us for scrap prices, container rentals or pickup service.