The role of recycled metals on the road to decarbonization

As a leader in the metals recycling industry for more than a century, Schnitzer Steel is providing the key metals to manufacture electric vehicles, renewable energy infrastructure, and the technologies that support a low-carbon future.

Global climate commitments are requiring companies to better understand the environmental impacts of their supply chains and seek out the most sustainable materials available in order to achieve their carbon reduction targets. Whether for electric vehicle (EV) battery production, solar panel or wind turbine manufacturing, or to deploy the infrastructure projects identified in the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, one thing is clear: Low-carbon technologies are more metal-intensive than the systems they are replacing. As a result, the U.S. metals sector is expected to see a significant influx in demand for critical materials, such as steel, aluminum, copper, nickel, lithium, and dozens of other metals, in the years ahead.

As one of North America’s largest recyclers of ferrous and nonferrous metals, Portland-based Schnitzer Steel is gearing up to deliver the increasingly critical feedstock needed to power the low-carbon transition by expanding its network of recycling operations, investing in advanced metal recovery technologies to deliver more and higher quality metals, reducing what it sends to landfills, and launching innovative solutions to meet the growing demand for net-zero carbon emissions finished steel products. 

Schnitzer acquires, processes, and recycles nearly 4.5 million tons of ferrous metal and more than 650 million pounds of nonferrous metal annually. The company’s Oregon steel mill is one of very few using carbon-free hydroelectricity as its primary energy source. When combined with the impact of utilizing recycled metal as its primary raw material, the steel made in its electric arc furnace has an exceptionally low carbon impact as compared to the industry average. Taking it one step further, in the spring of 2022, Schnitzer introduced GRN Steel™, a line of net-zero carbon emissions steel products, supporting an evolving customer demand for lower carbon product options. 

“Our operating platform allows us to secure, process, recycle, and market ferrous and nonferrous metals, ensuring that these valuable materials—many of which are in structural shortage—stay in the production process,” says Tamara Lundgren, Schnitzer chairman, president, and CEO. “Our recycled products become the low-carbon inputs needed to manufacture the next generation of sustainable technologies.”

The role of metals in a circular economy

Steel is the most recycled material in the world, and nearly 70% of the steel made in the U.S. each year is produced using recycled metal. As cars and appliances reach the end of their useful lives, and as bridges and buildings are demolished to be replaced or repaired, establishing ample, adequate infrastructure to transport, process, and recycle these materials is essential to maintaining the circularity necessary to meet climate goals.

Unlike paper, plastic, or cardboard, metal is infinitely recyclable. The unique challenge of recycling metals, however, lies in efficiently acquiring and effectively processing the end-of-life materials. Taking a flattened car or a jumble of plastic-coated copper wires and recycling it to meet the purity standards of smelters and foundries requires advanced technology and substantial expertise.

Schnitzer’s recycling facilities are equipped with technology that can shred a car into fist-size pieces of metal in less than a minute, says Lundgren. From there, the metals are separated into ferrous and nonferrous groupings and are processed into individual metal commodities to achieve the highest possible quality and volume. 

“By investing in these advanced metal recovery systems,” says Lundgren, “we’re able to extract more metal, send less material to landfills, create more product options for our manufacturing customers, all while reducing air, water, and energy impacts to the local environment.” 

A heritage of innovation

As a 116-year-old metals recycling business, Schnitzer has been involved in sustainability and the circular economy since long before the terms became commonplace. Today, the company’s vertically integrated operating model offers channels for both reuse and recycling, making it a valuable partner to organizations across many industries around the world. Schnitzer’s customers also benefit from the company’s commitment to sustainability, according to Lundgren. These companies are increasingly interested in the lifecycle of their products as they work to satisfy a growing demand for low-carbon impacts from their own consumers.

Schnitzer's GRN Steel™, a line of net-zero steel products, offsets the limited Scope 1 and 2 emissions generated during the steel manufacturing process.

Schnitzer’s sustainability goals are based on its framework of “people, planet, and profit.” In fiscal year 2021, Schnitzer reached its goal of 100% net carbon-free electricity use at its facilities and was honored by a number of organizations for its leading performance in sustainability, including being named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for the eighth consecutive year, certified as a Great Place to Work®, and recognized as one of the world’s most sustainable companies by Corporate Knights.

Building on more than a century of success, Schnitzer is also committed to investing in the next generation of metals recycling professionals. As Lundgren explains, the company’s achievements hinge on its workforce, which operates the machinery, supervises processing facilities, and engineers new technologies. To help students find opportunities within the metals recycling industry, the company launched Schnitzer Academy in 2021, an educational partnership program with three schools across Oakland and Sacramento. The program provides training, resources, scholarships, tuition reimbursement, and a path to employment for students interested in metal recycling. Schnitzer plans to roll out additional programs in other states in which it operates.

“In the same way that we are committed to investing in physical infrastructure,” Lundgren says, “we are just as focused on establishing partnerships with educational facilities around the country to help identify, train, and engage tomorrow’s sustainable workforce.”