How to Recycle Scrap Metal

Scrap metal recycling

Evan Demicoli / Unsplash

Despite what the name would suggest, “scrap” metal isn’t simply useless waste. Thanks to modern technology, scrap metal can be recycled and repurposed into new products, reducing the environmental and social impacts of mining and conserving limited landfill space. Unlike plastic, most metals can be recycled indefinitely without any impact to quality. 

Iron and steel, also known as “ferrous metals” make up the majority of the metal products found in the municipal solid waste stream. In 2018, the United States produced more than 19 million tons of ferrous scrap metal, and an estimated 50 million metric tons of iron and steel scrap are consumed in the U.S. annually. In fact, steel is thought to be the most recycled material in the world. Other common scrap metals include aluminum, brass, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. 

Scrap Metal Recycling 

Waste Management, Crane Placing Scrap Metal In Pile, Ready For Shipping To Recycling Facility
kozmoat98 / Getty Images

There are many options for recycling scrap metal, from curbside pick-up and takeback programs to donations that support artists and craftspeople. 

Roughly 150 million metric tons of scrap metal are recycled each year in the United States. Here are a few ideas for where to take scrap metal when you find yourself with a broken appliance or leftovers from a home construction project:

Scrap Yards

If you prefer to make your transaction on-site, look up local scrap yards that accept metal from individuals, not just companies that regularly generate scrap materials.

Be aware that some scrap yards may require a minimum amount of metal for recycling, and remember to keep your driver’s license handy—many recycling facilities require identification to prevent the collection of stolen materials. If possible, remove any non-metal components before drop-off.

Mail-In

Particularly if you are dealing with precious metals like silver, gold, or platinum, you have the option to send your scrap by mail. To protect your delivery, any high-value shipments should include tracking and insurance and require a signature. Sort and clearly label each metal type for easy processing. Companies like Specialty Metals and Rio Grande are a good place to start.

Curbside and Home Pick-Up 

If you’d rather find someone who will pick up scrap metal from your home or business, contact local junk removal and hauling companies. These services have experience in transporting scrap metal efficiently and safely.

Some city-operated solid waste authorities collect scrap metal alongside the usual curbside recycling items, but this isn’t common. Check for special collection days, and remember that you may have to call ahead to schedule pick-up. Never leave out scrap metal with sharp edges, as it can easily injure sanitation workers. 

What Types of Scrap Metal Can Be Recycled?

Dismantled wheel rims and pieces for recycling

Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

Scrap metal ranges widely in size—from copper wires and soup cans to large ship and airplane parts. Common sources of ferrous scrap metals include furniture, cars, and construction materials. Here are a few other examples:

  • Appliances: Many everyday items around the house, such as toasters, washers, dryers, and refrigerators, contain one or more types of metal that can be recycled as scrap. EnergyStar offers additional information about the best way to recycle these products.
  • Aluminum cans: Some states offer container deposit programs that guarantee a rate of five to ten cents per aluminum can brought to a certified recycling facility. 
  • Lead-acid batteries: These rechargeable batteries, such as those found in your car, are hazardous if not disposed of properly. Most car supply stores accept lead-acid batteries for recycling. Lead-acid batteries are one of the most common sources of lead scrap.
  • e-Waste: Electronic waste, like cell phones, often contains parts that may be sold or recycled as scrap metal. Some chain stores, like Best Buy, accept electronics for recycling, and certain facilities include data destruction as part of their services to protect your security.

While the vast majority of scrap metal can be recycled, here are a few types that are off-limits:

  • Radioactive metals: Radioactive metals like plutonium and uranium are far too dangerous to be handled by the average scrap yard. Luckily, many recycling facilities have portal monitors, which can detect unsafe levels of radiation prior to handling. These metals can be found in common consumer products like smoke alarms, luminous watches and clocks, old TVs, and more.
  • Toxic metals: Any items containing mercury cannot be recycled due to the health hazards posed by this element. Mercury-contaminated metal may be found in waste produced by the oil and gas industry, some vehicle parts, and electronic scrap from appliances. 
  • Public property: To avoid incentivizing theft, metal signage, guard rails, street lights, and similar items owned by the federal, state, and local government will not be accepted at reputable scrap recycling facilities. 
  • Containers with residue: Items like paint cans, motor oil cans, pots and pans, and propane gas tanks are often treated with harmful chemicals—think Teflon—and may contain remnants of toxic oils. Some recycling facilities can remove these coatings, but you should call to confirm that this service is available.

The Price of Scrap Metal

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, one of the key motivations for recycling is generating additional income. So, how much is scrap metal worth? The price is generally determined by the type of metal, lifecycle stage, and quantity. As a rule of thumb, non-ferrous metals tend to be worth more than ferrous metals; for instance, although non-ferrous scrap accounted for only 10% of all scrap metal recycling in 2018, it represented almost half of all U.S. scrap recycling revenue. Copper is considered to be the most valuable scrap metal, while tin, aluminum, and cast iron sit towards the low end of the price range. 

A larger amount of any metal may fetch a more competitive price from scrap buyers who prefer to purchase in bulk. Other factors that influence the price of scrap metal include market value based on supply and demand, as with any commodity, and the location of the recycling facility. Consider checking online resources, like iScrapApp, for the latest scrap prices in your area. 

While scrap metal recycling may not seem lucrative, there’s a $27 billion industry in the U.S. alone, which employs over 137,000 people. Increasingly, demand for metal in countries like China and India is driving the U.S. export market and bolstering prices. 

The Magnet Test

Scrap metal can be categorized as ferrous—containing iron—or non-ferrous—not containing iron. But it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two just by looking at them. A better alternative? Simply use a magnet. Scrap metal that contains iron will stick to the magnet, while non-ferrous materials will not. Scrap facilities often use industrial-strength magnets to aid in sorting and processing.

Ways to Reuse Scrap Metal 

Before you look up where to sell scrap metal or find a neighborhood recycling facility, consider donating these materials or reusing them as part of a home project. Jewelers, metalworkers, and other artists may appreciate donations to their studios. Charming yard and garden art often incorporate scrap metal, and there are many DIY furniture projects with step-by-step instructions available online.

Metal is a non-renewable resource, with limited ore available to humans over any reasonable geologic time scale. Therefore, when scrap metal isn’t recycled or reused, it drives demand for mining, a notoriously unsustainable practice. This extractive process can contaminate waterways, set off landslides, and lead to deforestation. Recycling scrap metal in licensed facilities can also improve public health by reducing air pollution associated with improper burning in the informal sector

So, next time you’re thinking about putting an old appliance in the trash, consider recycling or reusing your scrap metal. You’ll be conserving energy, protecting ecosystems, and making a little extra cash in the process.