Metals are not only essential, but also incredibly versatile. Used to manufacture things such as buildings, aircrafts, automobiles, ships, railways and home goods, the metal industry is both vast and consuming.
Today, humans use the equivalent of 1.5 planets to both provide and absorb our resources and waste.
Because of the ever decreasing availability of raw materials, sustainability in metal processing is becoming more important than ever.
This doesn’t just mean developing more efficient processes, but also minimising energy and optimising already available resources.
With a growing concern around global warming, many production industries have been given targets to reduce their emissions. Yet targets by governments to reduce emissions by half by 2050 is no easy ask.
Steel and aluminium account for around 10% of carbon emissions and the demand for these products is likely to double by 2050. As many scholars have noted, the metal processing industry has already undergone a sustainable makeover by improving blast furnace practises, reducing smelting, eliminating dust emissions, reducing greenhouse gasses, using froth flotation, improving slab/strip casting in steel and introducing inert anodes, drained cathodes and carbothermic reduction in aluminium. These changes have certainly all added to reducing carbon emissions.
Above all else though, recycling metals has lead to the greatest decline in emissions from the industry.
The great thing about metal is that it can be recycled as many times as you like and it wont change its properties. Although all metals can be recycled, it’s generally the cheapest metals – steel and aluminium – that make up the bulk of the recycling containers.
Shifting ideas regarding the ‘take-make-dispose’ way of living is leading to a more circular economy in which metals are recovered, re-used and recycled to reduce the extraction of virgin materials from the earth.
However, recycling rates are currently at an impressive 60% and the industry has invested heavily in energy efficient production.
Yet, whilst these practises have certainly reduced the metal processing carbon footprint, according to research projections by scholars such as Julian Allwood, the target set by the government still seems far out of reach.
So what can be done?
According to research, more drastic measures are needed, particularly in how we reuse and design metal products. To reduce the flow of material that goes back to recycling, scientists suggest reusing both scrap metal and old metal instead of melting it down, and also suggest reducing yield losses. Manufacturers like Metaconcept have come up with ingeniuos ways to reduce toxic substances like lead and cadmium in products like their cerrobend alloys, which is a low melting point alloy, and their cerro fusible alloys.
However, the harder hitting strategies to reduce emissions pose a somewhat more difficult problem. The first is to design products that use less metal materials, the second is to keep products for longer, thus cutting down on replacements, and lastly, to reduce demand for new goods.
Whist these strategies look fairly simple on paper, the hard reality is that product demand is only set to increase in years to come, leading to more scrap metal, more metal production and more recycling.
Therefore, it’s really up to us as the consumers to recognise the problems we’re facing and to make product and purchase decisions based upon that information.
Metal is absolutely crucial to how we live, but how we live with metal is something that can certainly be changed.
Our writers come from all over the world, but one thing unites them - their passion for sustainability.