Recycling Metal, & Managing Metal More Sustainably In The Future

In the guide below, we discuss metal recycling, and also how metal as a material and resource might be managed more sustainably in the future.

We consider why it might be important to recycle metal, current metal recycling rates, potential options to improve metal recycling in the future, and options for sustainable metal management.


Summary – Metal Recycling

Why Metal Recycling Might Be Important

Metal recycling can be important for a range of reasons, but, issues related to the supply and demand of specific metals in the future may be partially addressed with better metal recycling.


Benefits & Challenges Of Metal Recycling

There a range of potential benefits and challenges of metal recycling to consider, and we list some of them in the guide below.


Where Metal Waste Currently Ends Up

Only a portion of metal waste currently ends up being recycled.

There’s still a share of metal waste that goes to other forms of waste management, such as landfills and incineration.


Current Metal Recycling Rates, & Metals That Are Recycled The Most

We’ve listed the recycling rates of different metals in this guide.

In the US, in terms of millions of tons, iron and steel are recycled the most, followed by aluminium, copper, stainless steel, lead and zinc.

There’s also other metals like chrome, brass, bronze, magnesium, and tin to consider


Can More Metal Be Recycled Than What Currently Is?

Several reports indicate more metal can be recycled than what currently is.

As one example, there may be significant potential to recycle and recover more metal from e-waste

Some estimates indicate that the estimated recoverable metal value from e-waste is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


Potential Solutions To Improve Metal Recycling In The Future

We’ve listed several potential solutions to improve metal recycling in the future in the guide below


Managing Metal More Sustainably

There may be several ways to manage metal as a resource more sustainably in the future other than recycling metal

We list some of these ways in the guide below


Why Metal Recycling May Be Important In The Future

Metal recycling may be an important part of the future for some metals where demand, supply and availability become an issue.

Not only does the supply and availability of metals impact the manufacture of everyday products, but it also impacts things such as price and affordability of products that use metal too.

In addition to metals being mined from the ground, metals already mined and in circulation can be recycled/recovered to help meet demand (including future demand for new technology and new electronics that might put more demand on certain types of metals.)

Some guides we’ve previously put together that provide further information on these points are:

How Much Metal Is Left In The World, & When Will We Run Out?

We Might Never Run Out Of Mined Resources (Minerals, Metals, Fossil Fuels etc) – Here’s Why


Potential Benefits Of Recycling Metal

In addition to helping meet metal demand, metal recycling may have some of the following benefits:


Recycling metal means we are using metal resources more sustainably (metals and minerals are finite)

Recycling metal means we avoid mining environmental issues like mine tailings, erosion etc.

Some metals and some products containing metal are profitable to recycle. For example, aluminum cans are far easier and profitable to recycle than some other products or items containing metal 

Metal recycling and scrap metal industries provide employment 

Recycling some metals may be cheaper than producing these metals from virgin resources – this may be the case for recovering pure copper and gold from CRT television sets for example

Recycling may save energy for metals like aluminum, copper and steel


Some of the above points were summarised from the guides available at,, and


Potential Challenges Of Recycling Metals

We’ve previously outlined the general challenges of recycling.

However, some of the challenges that might be specific to recycling metal might include:

Products that contain metal, such as some forms of e-waste, might be impractical, inefficient or not economically feasible to recover metal from. There can be various reasons for this (such as product design, profitability, not having recycling facilities capable of recycling certain products, social behavior, and so on)

Recycling some metals may have an energy and water footprint to consider – some recycling may use a reasonable amount of energy outlines that ‘the thermodynamics of separation’ can be an issue for metal recycling. A good breakdown of the overall pros and cons of recycling can also be found at the resource


As one example of a challenge in recycling metals from specific products, lithium ends up in a mixed byproduct during EV battery recycling, and can’t directly be recovered. In order for recyclers to reclaim lithium from the byproduct, the required extra process adds cost


Where Metal Waste Currently Ends Up

In the municipal sector, it appears that metal makes up a 8% to 9.5% share of waste for each of the main waste management options.


Municipal Metal Waste Statistics – What % Of Waste Is Metal For Each Major Waste Disposal Option

Residential numbers and stats on metal waste are provided by (from 2015) are:

Metal makes up 9.1% of total waste generation

Metal makes up 9.0% of total waste that gets recycled and composted 

Metals make up 9.5% of total waste that goes to landfill

Metals make up 8.0% of total waste that gets combusted for energy


Commercial & Industrial Metal Waste Statistics

Commercial and industrial metal waste statistics are separate to the municipal/residential statistics above.


How Different Metals Are Currently Recycled

The USGS has a summary of how different metals and commodities are currently recycled which you can view at also indicates that the recycling of ferrous metals includes ‘… material collected through recycling programs, as well as metal collected at combustion facilities’


Examples Of Metals Recycled In Different Products

Some examples include:

Aluminum in various products such as containers and packaging (which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging), and aluminum was beer and soft drink cans

Steel in cans, and also steel packaging (strapping, crowns and drums). Other ferrous metals can be found in in appliances, and durable goods (according to

Lead from batteries

Other metals like copper found in different products


There’s also the recycling of different scrap metals to consider. indicates that:

[Of the] 150 million metric tons of scrap materials [the US recycles] annually … 85 million tons of iron and steel [with] aluminum [in second at] 5.5 million tons 

[The other scrap metals that come in behind aluminum are copper, stainless steel, lead, zinc, chrome, brass, bronze, magnesium, and tin]


Recycling Rates Of Different Metals

We’ve listed the recycling rates of different metals in this guide.


Can More Metal Be Recycled Than What Currently Is?

Some reports say that more metal can be recycled than what currently is. indicates that: 

Recycling rates of metals are in many cases far lower than their potential for reuse

Less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below 1 per cent recycling, yet many of them are crucial to clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars to the magnets in wind turbines


There may also be significant potential to recycle and recover more metal from e-waste


Potential Solutions For Recycling More Metals

Potential solutions might include, but aren’t limited to:

Make it easier to dispose of e-waste, and also make it easier for recyclers to collect e-waste (so that collection and recycling rates can be increased)

Consider how potential changes in product design can make it easier or more efficient to recycle products containing recyclable metals

Continue to develop technology that assists with better metal recycling, with specialised e-waste recycling micro factories being one example. indicates that ‘[Portable microfactories that process specific types of e waste might be one way to help make recycling metals more profitable and economical]’


Additionally, we could focus on prioritizing products that contain the highest quantities of recyclable metal.

For example, some types of e-waste contain either precious metals, or a substantial amount of total metal (compared to other products).

We’ve put together guides that contain more information on the metals found in e-waste, and also in electronics and technology products. also mentions that ‘The main metal containing post consumer waste items are cars, electronic appliances and packaging’ also indicates that electronic devices and printed circuit boards may have metal recovery potential:

Besides plastic and glass, electronic devices contain base and special metals such as cobalt, tin and antimony as well as precious metals like silver, gold, and platinum, all of which can be fully recovered.

[It’s estimated] that 10 ounces of gold can be extracted from every tonne of printed circuit boards, while more than 100 tonnes of gold ore needs to be processed to get the same amount.

The estimated recoverable metal value from e-waste is about US$370 million, including US$150 million from discarded printed circuit boards alone. also indicates the cell phones may have good recovery potential: ‘For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.’


Managing Metal More Sustainably

Metals don’t always have to be extracted from the ground as a virgin resource.

It’s possible to manage metal more sustainably by making more efficient use of metal that has already been mined, and by using other materials other than specific metals where possible.

We might do this via:


Re-Using Metal & Metal Products

For example:

Using a re-usuable metal water bottle.

Buying secondhand products containing metal

Repair electronic products or keep them for longer (where possible), instead of disposing of them or upgrading to new models 


Recycling & Recovering Metal

Particularly in e waste – some reports indicate that far more metal could be recovered from e-waste than what is currently being recovered.

It’s important to note that not all metals can be recycled due to chemistry, elemental makeup or thermodynamic issues.


Metal Substitutes & Alternatives

Some metals have alternative materials available.


– Substitutes For Scarce Metals

Where scarcity is an issue for a metal, substitutes or alternatives ideally have better proven reserves, or are more renewable in some way.



When reserves which are economically profitable to mine run low – prices for metals go up

We either move onto other metals with more reliable supplies, or find substitutes and alternatives


– Drawbacks To Substitutes – Quality, Performance & Other Concerns

It’s worth noting that metal substitutes and alternatives can sometimes have issues, such as quality or performance issues.


Performance of substitute metals can be an issue (computers will get slower, engines will be less efficient and so on) (


– Some Metals Have No Substitute

Because of factors like traits/properties or the use of a metal, some won’t have a substitute or alternative at all.


Of the 62 metals – Twelve of those metals … have no substitute at all for their major uses, and none of the 62 … have a substitute available to cover all of their uses (


– Examples Of Substitutes

The report in the sources list provides a list of substitutes for different metals and commodities 
















13. – pros and cons of recycling metals




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2 thoughts on “Recycling Metal, & Managing Metal More Sustainably In The Future”

  1. Wow, it’s great that 35 thousand pounds of copper can be recycled from a million cell phones. I have some leftover copper wires from an electrical project I was working on last month. I will look for a metal recycling service in the area so the scraps can be reused elsewhere.

  2. Could you please tell me how much metal is recovered from metal recycling?

    E.g., How much steel and aluminium metal is recovered from say, 1 ton of recycled steel and aluminium cans?

    How much is recovered from other recycled sources, e.g., cars, house hold appliances, etc.?

    I am interested in environmental recycling and wish to teach my chemistry students


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