Recovering Economy and Environmental Concerns to Drive US Metal Recycling Industry

With increasing global demand for metals and diminishing reserves of raw materials, the metal scrap recycling industry is to become one of the main raw material “mines” in the future. Current fluctuations in metal prices amid uncertainty over the state of the global economy are having a negative short-term effect on the industry. But, over the 2013-2018 forecast period the industry’s revenue is projected to rise by around 6% per year on average to US$15 billion by 2018. The growth of the industry will be fuelled by the recovery of the main buyers, increasing environmental awareness and utilisation of one of the industry’s most underdeveloped categories, non-ferrous metal recycling.

Improving construction and metal processing industries

A strong contributory factor to metal recycling growth in the US will be the improving performance of the economy and thus the main industry buyers. At a domestic level, trade between recyclers and producers of basic iron and steel and non-ferrous metals has been continuously increasing since the economic downturn. Spending on recycled metal scrap by producers of basic iron and steel has risen by 42% since 2009, with the non-ferrous metals industry increasing its purchases of metal recovered from scrap by 32% since the drop in 2009. Another significant buyer of metal products in the US – the construction industry – is forecast to recover, with turnover growing by 16% over 2013-2018.

Increasing environmental concerns

According to the World Steel Association, the recycling rate for all metal-containing products will increase considerably. The recycling rates for machinery, appliances and containers are expected to rise, reaching 75-95%. This is expected for a reason. Energy is becoming more expensive while, for example, the recycling of aluminium is 92% more energy efficient than smelting virgin ore. This figure stands at 90% for copper and 56% for steel, according to UNEP.

Due to lower energy consumption the recycling of metal scrap significantly lowers greenhouse emissions compared to the extraction and processing of virgin ores. This increases the recycling industry’s attractiveness immensely, taking into account the US government’s goal to reduce greenhouse emissions over the long term. As a result, major users of metals are expected to derive an increasing share of their supplies from recycled metal scrap.

Leading category – recycling of non-ferrous metals

Non-ferrous metal recycling is small in volume terms but accounts for around a 50% value share of metal recycling according to the ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries). However, the electronics recycling rate is still low in the US at 9% for mobile phones and 40% for computers. The shortening lifespan of high-tech equipment and growing demand for various gadgets is producing a great deal of electronics waste, and at the same time increasing demand for non-ferrous metals. This will positively affect the recycling industry and will create incentives to develop economically viable and efficient technologies to extract non-ferrous metals from electronics.