The Present & Future Of Recycling Metal

Recycling metal is something we may have to become more effective at in society in the near and long term future.

New technology and new electronics are putting more demand on certain types of metals – which is raising the question of how sustainably we might be using and recovering metal resources.

In this guide we look at the present, and potential future of recycling metal.


Summary – Metal Recycling

There’s several factors to consider that could impact the future of producing, using and disposing of metals

There is a lot of data out there that suggests there is a lot of metal that could be recycled and recovered from e waste that currently isn’t being recovered. The value of that metal could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars

When talking about residential waste, there is potential to recycle ferrous metals, aluminum, non ferrous metals, e waste, and other metals

One study indicates ‘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’ (

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

Recycling laptops and mobile phones has the potential to save energy/electricity, and metal

Some types of metal recycling are far more profitable than others (aluminium cans can generally be easy and profitable to recycle)

Some of the key challenges to better recycling of metals apart from inefficiency and cost/profit are social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, and the thermodynamics of separation.

There’s also the chemicals used in metal recycling, and waste management

Microfactories that are built specifically to process e waste and products with metal in them could be an option in some places in the future.

Making some products more recycling friendly could be another effective option


How We Are Currently Producing, Using & Disposing Of Metals – The Issue/s

Some potential issues we may run into with metal supply in the future might include:

Proven reserves of some metals may fluctuate in the future

Demand of certain scarce metals could increase in the future – especially with increased demand of new technology and electronics

Supply issues from country to country may become an issue

Mining metals in a profitable way may become an issue


These potential issues and other issues should cause us to examine how we can use metals more sustainably, or find a way to recycle and re-use what we already have mined.

Read more about current metal resources and metal supply in these guides:

Factors That Can Impact The Supply Of Mined Resources (Metals, Minerals, Fossil Fuels etc.)

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


% Of Metals In Residential Landfill & Recycling

There is a difference between residential, and commercial/industrial waste.

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

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



Industrial waste numbers could be very different to the residential numbers above though.


Metals In E Waste & Everyday Electronic Products & Technology

The metals in different everyday e waste is substantial.

Read more about them in these guides:

How many precious metals are found in electronics? ( 

Did you know your computer contains precious metals? (

These guides also mention the quantities of metals, e waste with the most metals, how much more efficient recycling is than iron ore extraction, and what metals different e waste has in them.


Current Recycling Rates Of Different Metals & E Waste (In Residential Waste)

According to the EPA, for residential waste:

Ferrous Metals

The recycling rate of all materials in appliances, including ferrous metals, was 61.7 percent.

… the recycling of ferrous metals from durable goods (large and small appliances, furniture, and tires to be 27.8 percent (4.4 million tons) in 2015.

… the recycling rate for steel cans was 71.3 percent (1.2 million tons) in 2015.

… the recycling of approximately 380,000 tons of other steel packaging that year, including strapping, crowns and drums. The recycling of ferrous metals included material collected through recycling programs, as well as metal collected at combustion facilities. 



In 2015, the total recycling rate of aluminum containers and packaging, which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging, was 36.4 percent.

Within this number, the most recycled category of aluminum was beer and soft drink cans, at 54.9 percent (0.7 million tons).


Non Ferrous Metals

Lead in batteries accounted for approximately 1.5 million tons of [non ferrous metals]. 

Recycling of nonferrous metals was approximately 1.5 million tons in 2015, with recycling being due to lead recovered from batteries. In 2015, the estimated amount of recycled battery lead was about 99 percent.


E Waste

In 2009, US citizens recycled just 25% of their used TVs and computers, while as little as 8% of mobile phones were recycled.



Of the 44.7 tonnes of e-waste generated around the world in 2016, only 20 per cent was delivered to appropriate recycling facilities.



All Metals

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

The main metal containing post consumer waste items are cars, electronic appliances and packaging

Smartphones, flat screen TVs, and USB keys all drive demand for specialty and precious metals



The United States recycles 150 million metric tons of scrap materials annually, including 85 million tons of iron and steel, 5.5 million tons of aluminum, 1.8 million tons of copper, 2 million tons of stainless steel, 1.2 million tons of lead and 420,000 tons of zinc

… Other metals such as chrome, brass, bronze, magnesium, and tin are recycled as well.



The Ways In Which Different Metals Are Currently Recycled

The USGS has a summary of how different metals and commodities are currently recycled which you can view at USGS


Potential For Recycling E Waste Metals

Recycling laptops and phones are two potential areas for better recycling e waste.


Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year.

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.



How Profitable Is Recycling Metals?

Some metals and some products containing metal are much more profitable than others.

For example, aluminum cans are far easier and profitable to recycle than some e waste which has small amounts of metal found in different parts of that e waste (which takes time, energy, money and often complexities to recycle).


… recovering ingots of pure copper and gold from used CRT television sets was 13 times cheaper than obtaining the same metals by mining and processing virgin ore. [when offset by government subsidies and sale of the extracted metals and recycled components]

[these results could be tested on other e waste and metals]

[portable microfactories that process specific e waste is one way to help make recycling metals more profitable and economical]



Pros & Cons, & Benefits & Challenges/Disadvantages Of Recycling Metals


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.

Scrap metal industries create jobs and can be profitable

Recycling saves energy for metals like aluminum, copper and steel


Recycling certain metals and products that contain metal can be expensive, time consuming and inefficient

Recycling some metals or metal containing products can use a lot of energy

Some metals can’t be recycled because of their chemicals composition 

–,, and


Some of the key challenges to better recycling of metals apart from inefficiency and cost/profit are social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, and the thermodynamics of separation.



A good breakdown of the pros and cons of recycling can also be found at


Potential Solutions For Recycling More Metals

Design products be easier and more efficient to recycle the metal found in them

Make products modular and detachable so parts can be replaced instead of the whole thing

Repair electronic products instead of constantly throwing them out and upgrading to new models

Have specialised e waste micro factories for recycling, or recycling specific products containing metal


Other areas to focus on for improvement are increased collection rates of discarded products, improved design for recycling, and the enhanced deployment of modern recycling methodology.

















14. – pros and cons of recycling metals

1 thought on “The Present & Future Of Recycling Metal”

  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.


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