Every year, we recycle about 500 million tons of garbage, and most of that occurs in developed and nearly developed countries. For the past few decades, we have recycled materials like plastic, newsprint, rubber, and cardboard. However, all of those are renewable materials. Metals are precious resources, and we may run out of them one day.
The world has a limited amount of metal. We are mining and using various metals at alarming rates for use in our homes, businesses, vehicles, and electronics. If we continue to extract metals from the ground at the current rate, we could exhaust the supply of certain metals in the not too distant future.
President Obama and NASA have announced a number of missions to study and harvest asteroids for precious metals, but such mining operations are currently beyond our technological capabilities. Until asteroid mining is a feasible alternative, we are stuck with what we can easily mine here on Earth.
Metals generate billions of tons of garbage every year, and it all ends up in landfills or the ocean. While it can take decades or centuries for metals to deteriorate, and as they do, they continuously release trace amounts into our environment. Those metals end up in our groundwater and contaminate our crops. A little iron is not going to kill anyone, but high levels of copper, barium, lead, and cadmium can lead to health problems like kidney failure and cancer.
Mining metal and turning it into a useful product takes a lot of energy. According to the recycling industry, it takes about 20 times as much energy to create an aluminum can from scratch as it takes to recycle an old one.
Metal recycling centers can be located anywhere, but mines must be located at metal deposits. By increasing the number of recycling centers in operation throughout the world, each scrap metal buyer can cut down on the number of recycling trucks on the road and save millions of gallons of fuel every year.
Like most other materials, metals loses almost no mass or structural integrity throughout the entire recycling process. The process is so efficient that the City of San Diego estimates that a single pound of recycled steel saves about 1.25 pounds of raw ore.
Chances are that you already use products that came from a scrap metal yard. For example, over half of all aluminum cans sitting on store shelves come from recycled aluminum. While we are doing a pretty good job of collecting and recycling metals and other materials, we can do better.
Steel, aluminum, and copper recycling efforts have benefits that extend beyond the environment. According to CNN, recycling operations around the world employ about 1.5 million people. The actual number may be much higher than the official figure, but it is impossible to know for sure.
Regardless, millions of people rely on recycling to earn a living. Many recycling operations are supported by local taxes. Without proper funding, recycling centers would be unable to collect plastic, metal, and other materials from homes, and many homeowners would choose to throw them out rather than driving to their local metal recyclers.
Recycling is a surprisingly profitable and efficient industry. Many recycling centers ship recycled aluminum, steel, and other metals to factories in different states or countries.
In 2010, the United States exported about $30 billion in scrap metal to other countries, which helped to offset a trade imbalance caused by manufactured goods, petroleum, and other industries.
Recycling around the world generates about $160 billion in profits a year. It helps to lower the costs of manufactured goods like computers, soda cans, and vehicles, so we all directly benefit from it. Developing countries are also receiving an economic boost from recycling efforts, which provides them with additional money to invest in infrastructure.