Time to ban the export of unprocessed scrap metal

This article was first published in Waste Management Review 0n 25 August 2021

The scrap metal industry has long been the recycling ‘poster’ child in Australia. With a recycling rate of 90% in 2018-19 according to the 2020 National Waste Report, it outperforms any other material category.

This high level of recycling in Australia would not be possible without the millions of dollars invested by the scrap and steel industry into building infrastructure across the country to collect, sort, shred, and process scrap metal.

In 2018-19 over 5.6 million tonnes, or 223 kg per capita, of metal scrap was generated.

Ferrous scrap that remains on shore is used as feedstock to Australia’s $29 billion steel industry which produces around 5.5 million tonnes of steel annually, and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics employs 110,000 Australians (2017-18) and generates annual revenue of $29 billion.

There are four steel producers in Australia and more than 300 steel distribution outlets through the country, in addition to manufacturing, fabrication and engineering companies.

Primary steel production using virgin raw materials supplemented by scrap occurs in New South Wales and South Australia with secondary production predominantly using scrap occurring in New South Wales and Victoria. The majority of steel end use is in the building, mining, rail, and construction sectors, with locally made steel also supplying the manufacturing, infrastructure, and distribution sectors.

Currently, an average of 24.2 per cent recycled and recovered content[1] (17.4 per cent and 6.8 per cent respectively) is included in the range of steel products manufactured at BlueScope’s Port Kembla Steelworks.

National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) CEO Rose Read says the carbon emission reduction benefits of substituting virgin ore with ferrous scrap are significant.

“On average almost two tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted for every tonne of steel produced from virgin ore, accounting for approximately 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, a tonne of steel produced from scrap produces just 25% of the emissions of scrap made from virgin ore.

“The greenhouse benefits are clear, and Australia’s steel industry recognises this with BlueScope’s demand in NSW for ferrous scrap trebling over the past ten years.”

While Australia’s scrap industry has been able to meet the steel industry’s growing demand for ferrous scrap. In recent times the scrap industry has had to supplement its supply with imported scrap. At the same time Australia has been exporting an average of 2.39 million tonnes of scrap metal per annum from 2017 to 2021 according to data from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE).

“There are several potential pathways to manufacture greener steel. Increasing scrap content in existing primary and secondary steelmaking facilities is an immediate step the steel industry can take as they move towards low carbon “green” steel while hydrogen technology is being developed.”

Ms Read says the value of Australia’s scrap metal industry to Australia’s steel production overall cannot be underestimated.

“Moving to green steel presents an enormous opportunity for Australia to create jobs, boost exports and help tackle climate change.

“However, if the scrap metal industry is to support the steel industry’s transition to “green” steel by suppling more ferrous scrap, several national and state regulatory changes must happen to keep ferrous scrap in Australia.

“This includes the federal government banning the export of unprocessed scrap, state EPAs licensing all car breaking operations and waiving landfill levies on residual wastes from legitimate scrap shredding activities,” said Ms Read.

How is ferrous scrap metal processed?

Recoverable materials are removed from metal-based goods such as old cars, white goods and other post-production and consumer goods. Lighter gauge materials are often processed through a shredder, with ferrous and then non-ferrous metals separated by large, sophisticated downstream separation plants. Heavier grade materials are size reduced by large industrial shears or by manually oxy cutting the metal. The ferrous scrap metal is then melted in large electric arc or blast furnaces, cooled and formed into shaped to produce metal products.

Much of the waste generated from the shredding process is known as known as automotive shredder residue (ASR) or floc and often ends up in landfill. Companies such as Sims Resource Renewal are building facilities to transform ASR into its core elements of hydrogen and carbon dioxide for transport fuel and industrial purposes respectively and aiming to divert more than one million tonnes of this material from landfill.

[1] According to recycled content categories defined in ISO 14021:2016. Scrap and iron-bearing materials generated and reclaimed from BlueScope’s steelmaking, coating and painting operations are considered as recovered content. Further information on the lifecycle impacts of BlueScope’s products can be found in BlueScope’s Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) published on our website.”