Ferrous metals

Extract BIR Annual Report 2020

For many years, the recycling industry has presented a vast array of reasoned, well-substantiated arguments to illustrate its massive economic, environmental and social worth. The message has not always struck home with policy-makers and legislators, so it is particularly instructive to note that we continued to function throughout the pandemic because we are fundamental to sustaining a manufacturing sector deemed essential by those same policy-makers.

The recycling industry has stuck to its task during the pandemic, although not always at 100% capacity and also not without encountering many bumps in the road. There were restrictions on the way we were allowed to operate; there was the painful process of laying off valuable members of our workforce; and there were inevitable transportation problems as global movements came under stricter control in a bid to stem the spread of the virus. Adoption of unfamiliar ways of working included a temporary halt to those personal, face-to-face meetings which have always characterized our industry. 

And yet, the recycling industry quickly adapted to these new circumstances and simply did what it has always done: got on with the job. It should make us all proud to reflect on the fact that our industry has played its part in maintaining the world economy’s impetus at this difficult time.

2020 was a remarkable year in so many ways, not least the speed of recovery in China. Preliminary data from its National Bureau of Statistics indicate that, despite COVID and all the related tribulations, the country still managed to record 2.3% GDP growth last year. And one of the most visible signs of this growth was that, following the onset of the pandemic, its steel industry regained momentum faster than any other in the world. China’s crude steel production not only exceeded 1 billion tonnes, but smashed through this barrier on its way to a prodigious 1.053 billion tonnes and an increase of 5.2% over 2019. Crude steel output in the rest of the world fell around 8% to 811 million tonnes. 

For our sector, of course, the scale of the crude steel production increase in China has not been reflected in the country’s overseas purchases of ferrous scrap because of import restrictions. But are we about to see a significant change in this regard? In December 2020, the government of the world’s largest consumer of steel scrap announced new standards for “recycled iron and steel raw materials” which would permit imports meeting certain standards. 

The potential ramifications for our markets are obvious. According to figures collated by our esteemed Statistics Advisor Rolf Willeke, China’s steel scrap consumption soared 15% in 2019 to almost 216 million tonnes and was on course to grow again in 2020: the cumulative total for January-September last year of 155.2 million tonnes was only 1% short of the corresponding figure for 2019 despite a relatively slow first quarter in which China consumed 41.53 million tonnes.

A Chinese government statement about this import-related change recognizes the role of scrap in the eco-friendly development of its domestic steel industry. At our BIR Ferrous Division webinar last October, guest speaker Ian Roper of Shanghai Metals Market pointed to massive increases in the country’s domestic steel scrap generation and to its electric arc furnace capacity. Renate Featherstone of Wood Mackenzie told our June eForum that the integrated route would remain China’s main source of steel in the next two decades but that her company’s base-case scenario suggested scrap could still account for 33-35% of the global steel industry’s metallics requirement by the year 2040, rising potentially as high as 47%.

With steelmakers under mounting pressure to adopt environmentally cleaner production methods, Renate added that the first logical step to reducing harmful emissions was to recycle and reuse all available scrap. This view dovetails perfectly with a study conducted on behalf of German steel scrap association BDSV which concluded that use of steel scrap in Europe rather than the ore-based steelmaking route reduces climate change costs by up to Euro 20 billion per year. If we are serious about inducing a greener industry approach, the argument goes, then such savings should be reflected in the raw material pricing mechanism. 

Recycling is integral to the renewed “greening” of our planet. It was a word much used in 2020 but one which certainly applies to our industry: essential.

“The recycling industry quickly adapted to these new circumstances and simply did what it has always done: got on with the job.”

Gregory Schnitzer

Sims Metal Management Global Trade Corporation (USA)


Ferrous metals are mainly composed of iron and have magnetic properties. Steel, an iron alloy containing carbon, is by far the most recycled material in the world. Total crude steel production in 2018 reached 1.8 billion tonnes, with verified data for 81% of global steelmaking indicating an associated steel scrap use of just under 470 million tonnes. A further 70 million tonnes of scrap is consumed by the world’s iron and steel foundries each year. Global external steel scrap trading - including internal EU-28 trade - amounted to 105.4 million tonnes in 2018 for an increase of 2.6% over 2017, according to BIR statistics.
The most commonly recycled items are scrap from industrial processes, and also end-of-life products such as containers, vehicles, appliances, industrial machinery and construction materials.

Proportion of steel scrap used in domestic steel production (2018):

Republic of Korea

These figures show that, throughout the world, use of scrap metal has become an integral part of the modern steelmaking sector, improving the industry’s economic viability and reducing its environmental impact. Compared to ore extraction, the use of secondary ferrous metals significantly reduces CO2 emissions, energy/water consumption and air pollution. At the same time, the recycling of steel makes more efficient use of the Earth’s natural resources.


World Steel Recycling in Figures 2016-2020

World Steel Recycling in Figures 2016-2020

pdf English 2015-2019

pdf English 2014-2018

pdf English 2013-2017

pdf English 2012-2016

pdf English 2011-2015

pdf English 2010-2014

pdf English 2009-2013

pdf English 2008-2012

pdf English 2007-2011

pdf English 2006-2010

pdf English 2005-2009





In general, metal recycling is a pyramid industry with many small companies at the bottom feeding scrap to large multi-nationals at the top. Steel recycling involves some, or all, of the following steps:

Sorting:  Magnets attract steel and so, through the use of magnetic belts, this metal can be easily separated from other recyclables such as paper in a recycling facility. Different kinds of steel do not need to be separated.

Shredding:  Shredders incorporate rotating magnetic drums to extract iron and steel from the mixture of metals and other materials.

Media separation: Further separation is achieved using electrical currents, high-pressure air flows and liquid flotation systems. 

Shearing: Hydraulic machinery capable of exerting enormous pressure is used to cut thick, heavy steel recovered from, for example, railways and ships. Other cutting techniques, such as the use of gas and plasma arc torches, are sometimes employed.

Baling: Iron and steel products are compacted into large blocks to facilitate handling and transportation.


Steel is ideal for recycling because it does not lose any of its inherent physical properties during the process, which can be repeated ad infinitum. Steel is 100% recyclable and, therefore, recycled steel can be used for the same applications as steel produced from virgin material. Products that are made of recycled steel include:

  • Construction materials for roads, railways, infrastructure & buildings

  • Electrical appliances

  • Cans & containers

  • Automobiles & other vehicles

  • Office supplies

  • Hardware such as bolts, nuts and screws


  • Recycling one tonne of steel saves 1100 kg of iron ore, 630 kg of coal and 55 kg of limestone.
  • Recycling one tonne of steel saves 642 kWh of energy, 1.8 barrels (287 litres) of oil and 2.3 cubic metres of landfill space.
  • Every tonne of steel made from recycled scrap saves enough energy to power four homes for a whole year.
  • Steel recycling uses 74% less energy, 90% less virgin material and 40% less water; it also produces 76% fewer water pollutants, 86% fewer air pollutants and 97% less mining waste.
  • A BIR-commissioned study conducted by Imperial College London has concluded that CO2 emissions are reduced by 58% when using ferrous scrap in steelmaking rather than virgin ore.

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