Steel Recycling Trends for North America - 2001 to 2020

Article updated on 17/03/20 by Clare Kiernan and Reginald Davey


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The recycling of scrap materials is an essential part of modern industry and contributes to the sustainable management of finite resources and raw materials in North America. The industry has different technologies for the processing of scrap iron and steel, while the main technologies used are the basic oxygen furnace (BOF) and the electric arc furnace (EAF.)

This article will provide a brief overview of trends in US steel recycling from 2001 to 2019.


2001: Steel Recycling in the New Century


The US steel industry contributes significantly to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, which also factors into the need for increased recycling rates. Ferrous materials (iron and steel) continue to be the most recycled materials in North America by weight.

Sources of steel for the recycling industry include packaging, containers, furniture, construction waste, and appliances. Steel for recycling purposes are also obtained from the process of dismantling ships, cars, and locomotives. 2500 lb of iron ore, 1400 lb of coal, and 120 lb of limestone are conserved for every ton of steel recycled.

In 2001, the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI) reported that nearly 66 million tons of steel were recycled. There was a gain of 5.7% over the previous year and an overall recycling rate of 67.8%, up from about 64% in 2000.

Automobiles were a significant contributor, increasing from 95.4% to 101.9%. Steel can recycling rates held steady at 58.1%, appliances underwent a marginal gain to 85%, construction material sources held steady at about 95%, and other sources stood at 50% (due to an increased rate of separation from concrete materials.)


2004: Further Improvement


By 2004, steel recycling rates had shown further improvement. According to data from the SRI, the annual recycling rate had reached 71%, with the total tonnage of recycled steel increasing by 7 million compared to 2003.

In keeping with these trends, it was also reported that the composition of steel recycled was almost 35% more post-consumer scrap than in 1980. Obsolete automobiles continued to be the most recycled product, with 14 million tons being obtained, equivalent to 13.5 million new automobiles (in 2003 the recycling rate was 103%.) In 2004, the US exported $3.1 billion of scrap steel to China.


2008 – 2011: Steel Recycling Rates Increase to 92%


Continuing the upward trend in steel recycling, by the time of the financial crash in 2008, the US steel recycling sector was reported to have achieved a rate of 83.3%. More than 82 million tons were being charged into furnaces in the USA in that year. 14.8 million tons came from scrap automobiles (a total automobile recycling rate of 106%.)

In 2011, the SRI reported that steel recycling had reached 92%. 10 million tonnes more were recycled than in 2010, due in part to a record recycling rate for the packaging sector of 70.8% which contributed 1.5 million tonnes of recycled steel. The vehicle recycling rate stood at 94.5%, appliance rates returned a solid 90% (2.9 million tonnes) and construction plates and beam recorded a 98% recycling rate, with rebar at 70%.


2013 – 2020: Mid-Decade Slump, US-China Tariffs Help Sector, Looking Toward the Future.


According to a report by the American Iron and Steel Institute, in 2013, steel recycling rates had fallen to 81%, still significantly higher than at the start of the 21st Century. Furnaces consumed 75 million tons of scrap steel. Despite this lull, by 2017, some large scrap companies in the US showed a 25% increase or more in volume compared to 2015, according to a report in Recycling Today.

In 2018, President Trump announced tariffs on the import of steel, which has helped boost the metal recycling industry overall and led to an increase in sources of steel for multiple industries from scrap material.

Coming at a time when the US steel recycling sector was already strong, this had a significant effect upon the sector. As the industry enters 2020, it is predicted that the recycling of scrap steel will continue to play its part in the wider steel industry, providing high quality, sustainable materials for a wide range of products.


In Conclusion


Since the beginning of the 20th Century, recycling of steel, as well as other metals, has shown a significant uptick in rates of scrap metal reclaimed, recycled, and reused, which can only have benefits for the industry as well as the wider world.

This trend is predicted to increase in the future, as factors such as improved technology, government trade and environmental policies, as well as the broader commitment of the industry to achieving a decrease in its ecological footprint and harmful emissions all contribute to the continued health of the recycling sector.

The recycling of steel continues to play an essential part in the sustainability of several diverse industries that are related to that of steel production in North America. The impact of current Government trade policy, especially the imposition of tariffs on China – a major producer and consumer of steel – are still yet to be assessed in the long term as they represent a very recent change in circumstance, but are contributing to an overall shift in the way the steel industry operates in the US. The future of North American steel recycling looks bright.


References and Further Reading


Iron and Steel – Profile – US Environmental Protection Agency

2015 American Iron and Steel Institute Profile –

50 Fun Facts about Steel –

Ferrous Metals: Material-Specific Data – United States Environmental Protection Agency

On the Upswing – Recycling Today

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