Just as the three Rs—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic—are education fundamentals, so too are the four R’s of steel recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Restore, fundamental to all aspects of environmental conservation.

Last month, in Part One, we left off our discussion of steel recycling and its impact on the walls and ceiling industry by mentioning the four Rs of steel recycling as defined by the Steel Recycling Institute. They were:

• Reduce

• Reuse

• Recycle

• Restore

This time, we’ll discuss each of the four Rs in detail.


The total energy used by the steel industry since the end of the Second World War has been reduced by 60 percent—quite an accomplishment. Such a significant reduction in energy usage by an industry has a profoundly positive environmental impact. Since carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main undesirable byproduct of energy generation, any reduction in energy usage in turn decreases the generation of CO2—a “greenhouse” gas. During the decade of the 1990s alone, the steel industry’s energy usage decreased by 9 percent.

Not only has the energy required to produce steel been dramatically decreased in the post-WWII era, so too has the raw material required to produce steel been greatly reduced. In 1970—the year of the first Earth Day, 145 tons of raw material were required to produce 100 tons of steel. By the end of the 20th century, only 116 tons of raw material are required to produce the same 100 tons of steel. Air, water and solid waste pollution have also been greatly reduced. By 2000, air and water pollutants generated by the steel industry have been lowered by as much as 90 percent as compared to a decade earlier.

As well, much of the solid waste accompanying steel production is now channeled back into production rather than being buried in a landfill—definitely a bonus for the environment.


The iron/steel-making process creates several byproducts. For iron, the primary byproduct is blast furnace slag. For every ton of iron produced, 600 pounds of blast furnace slag is generated as solid waste. Formerly destined for landfills, blast furnace slag is now recovered and reused to build roads, provide railroad ballast, make glass and fertilizer and put to other productive uses. Another byproduct related to the iron-making process is the enormous quantities of gas that are produced to make Coke—an essential ingredient in iron making. Nowadays, this gas is recovered, cleaned and reused. This recovery process conserves valuable Btus (British thermal units).


Steel is the most recycled material in the world—bar none. Since the end of WWII, recycling of steel has increased by more than 50 percent. Much of the incentive for this conservation came as a result of the devastation caused by the war whereby raw materials were in short supply, as well as the shortages caused by the enormous quantities of steel and other strategic raw materials used during the war to manufacture munitions, ships, planes, etc. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, 60 percent of steel is recycled. In North America, 82 million tons were recycled in 1999—67 million in the United States and 15 million in Canada.

Other byproducts of the steel-making process, such as mill scale, slags, water, processing liquids (e.g. spent “pickle liquor”), dust and sludges, etc., have long been recycled by the steel industry. The Electric Arc Furnace process for making steel vaporizes zinc into electric furnace dust. This dust is recovered and recycled into zinc once again.

The inherent magnetic properties of iron and steel make it easy and efficient to “cull-out” from the solid waste stream. Fully 100 percent of automobiles, 80 percent of electrical appliances and 60 percent of steel-based packaging is removed from the solid waste stream and recycled.


Disparagingly referred to as the rust belt, now derelict steel-making facilities of a past era are being revitalized into useful resources for local communities. Commonly known as “brownfield sites,” this process re-develops land and infrastructure where steel making once occurred. Replaced with light commercial and/or retail establishments, these one-time eyesores and symbols of economic decline are now given new life by this process of restoration.

Steel is and will remain an important part of the walls and ceilings industry. The steel industry set the standard for recycling long before it was fashionable to do so. Many other industries have followed the example set by the steel industry for their own recycling efforts.

With the increased use of light- gauge metal framing for walls, floor/ceiling and roof systems, we can play our part by recycling steel scrap and debris wherever and whenever possible. Doing so will prove to be advantageous to both the environment and our bottom line. W&C