Using scrap metals to make new products is more cost-efficient and eco-friendly than mining for raw materials. Here we break down for you how this whole process works.

No matter where you look, various forms of metals from copper to aluminum to stainless steel make up many of the things that we use in everyday life — from the buildings we live and work in, to the electronics that we use, and to the cans of soda that we drink.

But that leaves a huge potential for metal-containing products to end up in landfills and completely go to waste.

The good thing is that metal can be recycled indefinitely, which makes it more environmentally appealing than plastic, in a way.

But how does scrap metal recycling work, really? Read on to find out.

Where Can I Recycle Metal?

You can recycle metal at numerous recycling services around the US. Because it’s such a big business, there are metals recyclers or metal scrappers in almost every county and city across the country.

The easiest way to find the services that are closest to you is to use the search feature on GreenCitizen's Green Directory. This will give you all the available options in your local area.

What is Scrap Metal Recycling?

scrap metal recycling what is it-2

Scrap metal recycling is the process of scrapping, collecting, and melting down the metals that are part of end-of-life structures and products. These metals can then be used as raw material for new products.

The process covers any metal — from the ones that are in an old laptop to the ones that can be found in the chassis of a car, in an old washing machine, in copper wire, and in the cans of soda in your refrigerator.

Globally, the scrap metal recycling market is expected to reach $86.11 billion by 2027. You can see from the numbers below how much of a huge industry it is in the US alone:

  • 42% of US-made steel comes from scrap
  • 105,784 aluminum cans are recycled in the US every minute
  • 120 million tons of recyclables are handled by metal recyclers in the US every year

Types of Metal Recycled

You can divide scrap metals into two main categories: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals.

1. Ferrous Scrap Metal

Ferrous metals are those that contain iron. Steel, a ferrous metal, is by far the most recycled metal in the world, mainly because buildings and large transport vehicles contain a lot of it. [1]

The recycling rates of ferrous metal are 27.8% (from durable goods) and 60.3% (of all materials in appliances including ferrous metal) according to the EPA.

Ferrous scrap metal itself can be divided into two categories: obsolete and prompt scrap.

scrap metal recycling with ferrous metal-2
  • Obsolete scrap - This includes household appliances, bed springs from mattresses, electronics, cars, buildings, and different types of engines and machines.
  • Prompt scrap - This refers to the pieces that are left over during manufacturing. Surprisingly, prompt scrap metals make up about half the supply of scrap materials.

2. Non-Ferrous Scrap Metal

scrap metal recycling with non-ferrous metal

Non-ferrous metals, on the other hand, are those that don't contain iron, like aluminum, copper, brass, zinc, nickel, and tin. Aluminum in particular is very attractive for recyclers since it doesn't degrade during recycling, which means that it could be processed many times over.

Recycling rates are about 16.2% for aluminum and 66.1% for other non-ferrous metals according to the EPA.

The more metal is recycled, the less need there is to mine raw materials in the first place.

The volume of non-ferrous recycling actually makes up a much smaller amount than ferrous recycling.

However, a lot of those metals like copper, lead, and even brass have significant value, which is why non-ferrous scrap metal is considered to be more valuable by the pound than ferrous scrap metal.

The Metal Recycling Process: How is Scrap Metal Recycled?

Scrap metal is recycled by taking end-of-life electronics, machines, and other metal-based items through a 7-step process that employs sound practices in recycling:

1. Collecting the Scrap

scrap metal being collected

The first and most important step is the actual collection of scrap. Recyclers can collect it from individuals dropping off their electronics, metal equipment, or household appliances, while scrap yards will normally get it from a variety of sources.

2. Separating the Metals from Each Other

metals being separated with magnets

Most recycling services have automated systems that use magnets and other sensors to separate the different types of metals from each other. This would result in separate piles of aluminum, stainless steel, copper, brass, and more.

3. Shredding the Metal

shredded scrap metal

This part usually involves cleaning off the leftover plastics and even concrete from the scrap metal. Then, huge shredders will break everything down into smaller pieces so the metal can be easily melted.

4. Melting the Metal

metal being melted in a furnace

The small pieces of metal are then melted in a furnace. The process can take as short as a few minutes to as long as several hours. While this is an energy-intensive step, it’s still far more efficient than producing metal products out of raw materials.

5. Removing Impurities

using electrolysis to remove impurities in metal

Most recycling services use electrolysis to remove contaminants and impurities to create a clean, final material. This is important to ensure that different types of factories can use it for new high-quality consumer and industrial products.

6. Shaping the Metal

metal being shaped-2

The melted metals are then cooled and shaped into bars, tubes, or sheets of various thickness (some of them may look similar to those sheets of stainless steel you see in Home Depot).

7. Delivering the Finished Metal Products

finished metal product for delivery

Once everything has cooled down, they're now ready to be delivered and turned into brand new items for consumer and industrial use. Factories and construction sites are the most common recipients of these finished metal products.

Benefits of Metal Recycling: Why Do We Recycle Metals?

This might sound like an obvious thing to ask, but a lot of folks may be surprised by all the benefits you can get from metal recycling.

1. Environmental Benefits

The more metal is recycled, the less need there is to mine raw materials in the first place. [2]

As you know, mining and extraction operations deplete our natural resources and are highly disruptive to the environment.

This makes scrap metal recycling somewhat a more eco-friendly alternative to mining.

metal being mined

2. Financial Benefits

Everything from iron to copper and brass has considerable value. While the price for each type of metal differs, any enterprising individual can earn a decent amount of money just by collecting and selling these materials.

Our material comes from residential sources, from other scrap yards, and from dealers or aggregators who collect the material. For example, if a bridge is demolished, that stuff will be aggregated and brought in to us by a dealer.

Don Fleming, Operations Director of Scrap Recycling Company Metalico

3. Entrepreneurial Benefits

a scrap metal collector

You can also turn recycling into a profitable business venture by becoming a scrap metal vendor or by starting your own metal collection business.

If you're an existing business, you can use it as an opportunity to reduce your production costs, since it's cheaper to reuse and recycle metal products than to create them from raw materials.


How much is scrap metal worth per pound today?

Scrap metal is worth anywhere from $0.05 to $3.00 per pound, depending on the type. Copper is among the most valuable (which is why copper wire theft is a huge problem in some areas), while iron is one of the cheapest.

What can you do with old metal?

You can bring old metal to any local scrap yard or recycling center. Pretty much all products that have metal in them have some residual value that would allow you to turn them into cash.

What metals cannot be recycled?

Radioactive metals like uranium and plutonium, and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, and chromium are some of the metals that cannot be recycled. They're toxic and can be a source of environmental pollution, which is why they have to be handled by specialist services to ensure that they are dealt with in a safe way.

Can I put metal in the recycling bin?

Yes, you can put metal in the recycling bin as long as it’s clean and is not part of a more complex device. Electronic gadgets that contain metals would need to be dealt with separately, however.

What scrap metal is worth the most money?

Copper is the scrap metal that is worth the most money. And depending on the type, you could get up to $3 per pound if you sell it (there was even a time when it managed to fetch as much as $4.50 per pound).

Where can I dump metal for free?

You can dump metal for free at most scrap yards, although it’s always worth asking if they will pay you for it. You can also check if your city has a recycling program that accepts this kind of material.

Are metal scissors recyclable?

Yes, most metal scissors are recyclable. Just bring them to a drop-off point along with other metal waste you might have.

Do scrap yards take rusted metal?

Yes, scrap yards take rusted metal, but it may be worth considerably less than one that's not rusted. You should still drop it off though so it can be melted and turned into something useful again.

Can all metal be recycled?

No, not all metal can be recycled. Certain types of heavy metals and radioactive elements are not suitable for standard processing.


Metal recycling has been done by humans for hundreds of years. Today, it has turned into a big business and is one of the most important sources of new supplies for manufacturing and construction.

If you have scrap metals lying around, then why not contact your local scrap yard or recycling center to see if they would be willing to offer you anything for them? You can use our Green Directory above to look for those recycling centers that are nearest to you.

You're not only going to be earning from them — you'll also be doing the environment a favor.



Chris is one of GreenCitizen’s writers who has been a long-time advocate of individual responsibility when it comes to the environment. He shares GreenCitizen's passion for making the world a better place every day of the year.

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