Within the scrap recycling industry, one can encounter people with many different viewpoints and widely varying philosophies as to how to approach the industry. On at least one point, however, there seems to be wide agreement: Nothing is easy about consistently meeting the quality and chemistry needs of scrap metal consumers.
The tension between steel mills and ferrous shippers relative to the presence of copper and other unwelcome nonferrous metals has existed for decades. Likewise, melters of aluminum, stainless steel and copper scrap have strict chemistry requirements of their own.
Making the entire endeavor more difficult in recent decades has been the trend toward a higher percentage of scrap being obsolete rather than the relatively pure (or at least easily identifiable) flows of scrap coming from stamping plants and other industrial processes.
The most obvious scrap quality issue involves the presence of outright “wrong things in the wrong place.” Whether through carelessness, hurry or lack of proper training, quality claims still arise because stainless steel is in a shipment of aluminum or an unwelcome form of brass is in a copper shipment.
Human error cannot be eliminated, but quality programs are in place to deal with these very issues. Through a combination of metals identification training and the use of laboratory or handheld analyzing equipment, the means to prevent such situations exist.
A bigger challenge lies in the form of handling obsolete scrap and preparing it in a way to completely separate metals from each other and metals from plastic and other nonmetallic materials.
Processors without shredders must make a determination as to which inbound obsolete items are worthwhile targets for disassembly and which will be shipped to a shredder.
As nonferrous metals prices have risen during the past decade, an increasing number of auto salvage yards and portable baler crew operators have harvested aluminum wheels and copper wiring from end-of-life vehicles.
Shredder operators who invested to thoroughly harvest nonferrous metals using downstream shredder systems have been increasingly dismayed by the “stripped” auto hulks that come into their possession.
With less copper being introduced into the shredder initially, theoretically less copper contamination should be drawn in by drum magnets picking up the ferrous shred.
The other good news for steel mill buyers seeking lower copper content has been the emphasis by equipment makers to pluck out “meatballs,” or pieces of shredded motor scrap that contain iron or steel bonded with copper.
Scrap recyclers, consumers and equipment makers all can agree that no one wins when high-priced copper is sent to a steel mill, which is not paying for it and doesn’t want it as part of its melts.
Isolated from the rest of the ferrous stream, the meatballs have a secondary commodity value on their own and were designated as “shelmo” in the ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.) “Scrap Specifications Circular” in 2006. Most often, the shelmo pieces are shipped to China where they are disassembled by hand.
The copper content in ferrous shred is just one of many quality issues that must be monitored when processing obsolete scrap.
Another frequent source of claims and negotiation involves the processing of mixed wire and cable. Guesswork is involved even for experienced and well-intentioned recyclers when coated and insulated wire from numerous sources is put together in one bale.
Scrap recyclers don’t necessarily need statistics to demonstrate to them that obsolete scrap plays a much bigger role in their lives than it did three or four decades ago.
Should they wish to see such a portrayal, however, U.S. federal government statistics that track ferrous scrap grades help point to the difference in that sector.
In 1978, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines “Minerals Yearbook,” these were the grades most commonly purchased by steel mills in the U.S. (in short tons):
Thirty-five years ago, bundles and turnings of relatively pure forms of scrap accounted for some 12 million out of the 23 million tons of ferrous scrap purchased—more than 50 percent.
In 2008, the breakdown looked like this, as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey:
Prime ferrous scrap in the form of busheling, bundles and turnings accounted for just 9.9 million tons out of the 36 million tons of ferrous scrap consumed in 2008, or less than 30 percent.
For those in the ferrous scrap sector, the quality control issues related to this industry transformation are numerous and now entail a healthy percentage of the labor hours expended in scrap yards, at scale houses and in the offices of managers and executives.
Companies that process wire and cable ultimately can assay and know how much copper has actually been included. Both before and after this assay report, however, recyclers trying to determine the proper grade to make fair payment may have reached very different conclusions about what is in a given bale or container.
Baled wire is one of several scrap grades—along with shredded mixed metals such as zorba or the metallic content of auto shredder residue (ASR) sent to a media plant—where quality merges with trust and open communication.
The sometimes tense dialog between the companies in this chain can be important to the quality control process, recyclers say, provided all parties are acting honestly.
In addition to the dollars and sense quality issues that recyclers must be aware of when handling obsolete scrap, hazardous materials can cause a shipment to be rejected or can lead to wider problems.
Shredding automobiles is an automated processing technique that has provided millions of tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals to the global commodities market.
However, just a handful of tiny lighting components—in places such as automobile glove compartments and trunks—prompted an important quality control measure.
The automotive electronic devices in question were, for several decades, made with a bead of mercury used within the sealed contact. Two tiny beads of mercury per automobile, in some shipments of ferrous scrap to steel mills, added up to detectable amounts of mercury leaving the emissions stacks of those same mills.
As a toxic substance, mercury is considered a hazardous waste, the handling of which is closely regulated. When detectable amounts of mercury began to show up in the emissions of steel mills, it became a scrap quality issue of concern to auto dismantlers, shredder operators, steel mills and, ultimately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
From 2006 to 2009, a program and fund were established that helped reinforce to all parties concerned that handling mercury switches should not proceed in a “business as usual” fashion.
The National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program (NVMSRP) remains in place, managed as of 2013 by Farmington Hills, Mich.-based ELV Solutions.
On its website, www.elvsolutions.org, ELV Solutions says more than 5 million tons of mercury have been removed from the metals production chain or from improper disposal thanks to the NVMSRP, showing that those small switches add up.
The fund “was depleted in 2009,” ELV Solutions says, but “all other aspects of the switch collection program remain operational.” While funding is not available to participants throughout the U.S. anymore, ELV Solutions says, “Incentive payments will continue in states where they are required by law (Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Utah) or have a state-funded program (Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington).”
The NVMSRP was developed after considerable debate and negotiation between the steel, automotive, scrap and auto dismantling industries.
The NVMSRP has accomplished several things: ensuring mercury goes through the proper disposal or recycling channels; calling attention to automakers and regulators that more acceptable “design-for-recycling” alternatives to mercury switches should be pursued; and creating a habit or mind-set among dismantlers and recyclers that isolating such hazards can be part of daily business.
Mercury switches have been just one on a long list of such hazards that demand the attention of scrap recyclers. Refrigerators, air conditioners and other obsolete appliances that use of coolants also have their own protocol for handling these coolants—a protocol that is enforced by the U.S. EPA.
Rapid Recovery, Peoria, Ariz., serves demolition contractors and other scrap generators who encounter obsolete appliances containing coolant.
Judging by Rapid Recovery’s growth in the past 10 years, it has hit upon a genuine market need. Since opening in 2002, the company has expanded to 35 locations. “In 2011, we recovered over 1.7 billion pounds of carbon equivalent CO2 (carbon dioxide),” says Rapid Recovery CEO Adam Dykstra. As of late 2012, the firm had recovered roughly 4.5 billion pounds, he adds.
One additional quality concern that may involve new levels of research and problem-solving has to do with the very nature of the continual recyclability of metals.
Metals producers proudly point to the seemingly eternal recyclability of iron, aluminum, copper and other metallic elements. As in other things in life, however, too much of a good thing could have its downside. Operators of scrap-dependent electric arc furnace (EAF) steel mills, as one example, have expressed concern that copper-content levels in ferrous shred have been creeping steadily upward.
Recyclers, in turn, note that much of the steel produced in these mills has a higher copper content than the steel produced using largely iron ore in a blast furnace. The result is a loop between EAF steelmakers and scrap suppliers that makes it difficult to squeeze copper out of the equation.
The potential dilemma is that no matter how much shredding plant owners and other scrap recyclers invest to separate iron and steel from other elements, the steel scrap they are harvesting increasingly has a higher average copper content.
To keep the scrap flowing and the furnaces melting, in the meantime, requires investing in sorting and establishing a chemistry tolerance range that is achievable for recyclers and suitable for mills.
The dilemma is one of several that cause scrap recyclers to appreciate the work they are doing is not easy nor easily understood by those unfamiliar with the industry.
The author is editorial director of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.