Scrap metal recycling is a well-established practice, with clear economic and environmental value. The high cost of mining metals support the practice economically. Metal recycling is very effective in that it can be recycled repeatedly without the degradation in material quality that occurs with plastic, paper and OCC recycling. The environmental impact is also clear: recycled aluminum uses 95 percent less energy, copper uses 90 percent less, and steel 56 percent less.[i]
With metal recycling being well established, the metals recycling market was less susceptible to disruption from China’s National Sword policy. Though Covid-19 impacted the market by driving down demand, and causing shortages in materials like aluminum, the scrap metals recycling market has rebounded significantly driven by high commodity pricing.
Currently, the business case for metal recycling is extremely robust, scrap metal prices are currently at an all-time high and pricing is predicted to remain high for the foreseeable future.
The clear value in metals recycling is leading to new opportunities in the market for recycled metals.
- The high value of metals supports increased E-Waste recycling. The economic case for recycling difficult-to-disassemble electronic devices becomes clearer given the high prices of the metals used in those devices.
- New forms of recycling and mining are being devised such as landfill-mining and mining of rare earth elements from coal waste sites.[ii]
Challenges to the market include lower-than optimal recycling rates. Currently only about 34% of metals are being recycled.[iii] As noted in our article on glass recycling, container deposit laws (or bottle bills), one of the most obviously successful ways of driving up recycling rates are only in place in 10 U.S. States. Further bottle bill implementation would be a surefire way of putting a dent in the continuing aluminum shortage.
With higher commodity costs in place metal recyclers must emphasize safety while also finding ways to discouraging theft. Catalytic converters, for instance, are being stolen at a record rate because of the high value of precious metals like rhodium and palladium.
In the paper recycling market, the last few years have been rockier. The combination of the implementation of China’s National Sword policy followed by the Covid-19 pandemic sent the price of recycled material plummeting. Now, with the economy emerging from the pandemic, and lifted by the massive shift to e-commerce and resulting demand for boxes, paper and OCC pricing is recovering (price for mixed paper is 5x higher than a year ago).[iv] Mills report that prices are expected to remain high.
Demand is currently outpacing supply of recovered paper and OCC and mills expect this to be the case throughout the summer. As is the case with plastics, glass and metal, an emphasis needs to be placed on improving recovery rates.