Stainless Sustainability: The Circular Economy of Metal

Stainless Steel Might Be the Ultimate Green Raw Material

Going green and ensuring the highest sustainability with the world's energy resources is a growing necessity in the current age of business. Environmental awareness continues to be a key consideration for companies and their customers, and there's a growing need to cut on carbon footprint. As such, industries across the globe continue seeking better methods of keeping their products environmentally friendly.

Among the most commonly used green raw material is stainless steel. Stainless steel is a fantastically green material because it is 100 percent recyclable. In fact, more than half of all the stainless steel materials that are in use today have been sourced from scrap materials. What's more, its production does not produce toxic run-off. Individuals and business entities can make a huge difference by simply going for stainless steel rather than other non-recyclable raw materials.

This piece seeks to highlight what steel is and the different ways in which SS stands out as the ultimate green raw material.

Circular economy concept - metal rolling into infinity symbol

What Is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is an extremely versatile metal that is selected by many manufacturers for it’s broadly desirable characteristics. Contrary to what most people believe, the term “stainless steel” doesn’t refer to one particular alloy. Rather, the general term is used to refer to a variety of iron-based alloys comprising of at least 10.5 percent chromium. To enhance the metals' resistance to corrosion, strength, and other properties additional elements are usually added.

So, what is stainless steel? It’s essentially this:

Stainless Steel = Iron + Chromium (> 10.5%) + some other stuff

Elements like molybdenum and nickel are usually included in the alloy to increase its strength, enhance its heat resistance, and improve its manufacturing attributes and formability for deep draw applications. Stainless Steel is a true marvel of technology and has modernized industries like transportation, aerospace, and medicine. Its vast benefits make everyday life easier in ways we don’t even think about. The corrosion resistant characteristics of this metal give it its ‘stainless’ moniker and come, in large part, from the chromium content which forms an invisible layer on the alloy surface that protects the metal from corrosion or rusting. This oxide layer is what prevents oxygen from reaching the inner surface.

There are many grades of stainless steel, each with their own unique properties that make this family of alloys such a great fit for so many manufacturers.

One of the best characteristics about stainless steel is that stainless steel is 100% recyclable into the same product, with no reduction in quality.

How Green Is Stainless Steel?

There's a wide range of criteria used to ascertain the environmental impact of stainless steel. Here are the key categories:

Corporate Environmental Principles

There's a need to guide and regulate the ecological actions of different companies. As such, it is necessary to establish environmental policies to ensure the right management and conservation measures. Most North American stainless steel producers have such consistent policies.

Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals, Inc., for instance, complies with the relevant local, state, and federal laws and regulations that relate to environmental conservation. Here are some of our guiding principles:

  • Establishment and integration of ecological programs into company operations and policies.
  • Management of raw materials, co-products, wastes, and byproducts in agreement with the relevant environmental conservation laws.
  • Consideration of the impact on the environment when evaluating new technologies, projects, and manufacturing processes.
  • Promoting pollution prevention, natural resource conservation, and the reasonable reuse and recycling of manufacturing materials.
  • Encouragement of development and research on enhanced environmental and manufacturing technologies and the acquisition and use of recyclable, durable steel products.
  • Fostering staff awareness of their role in ensuring proper environmental management in the company policies.
  • Issuing the appropriate response to client and community information requests.
  • Stainless steel alloys have no adverse health effect, hence are not hazardous.
  • There's no evidence to prove that steel manufacture affects staff health.
  • The cutting and grinding of these alloys don't affect workers' health.
  • Welding of these alloys doesn't present a higher risk of lung cancer than any other steel welding form.

Environmental Management Systems

The success of environmental management efforts requires commitment from the top. All staff at Ulbrich are aware of their responsibility to ensure a healthy environment. Furthermore, personnel at every level of the organization are committed to ensuring successful environmental management efforts.

Involvement in Environmental Partnerships and Councils

Almost every manufacturer in the stainless steel industry participates in various ecological and governmental associations and committees.

Health Impact of Stainless Steel

A past study by the European Confederation of Iron and Steel industries (EUROFER) dubbed Manufacture, Processing and Use of Stainless Steel: A Review of the Health Effects (1999) led to these eye-opening findings:

  • Stainless steel alloys have no adverse health effect, hence are not hazardous.
  • There's no evidence to prove that steel manufacture affects staff health.
  • The cutting and grinding of these alloys don't affect workers' health.
  • Welding of these alloys doesn't present a higher risk of lung cancer than any other steel welding form.
Illustration of circular economy showing product and material flow, product life cycle, waste recycling management concept.

Materials, Water Usage, And Energy

Here's the environmental impact of stainless steel on raw materials, water, and energy consumption.

Raw material – This comprises recycled stainless steel and alloy scrap containing the basic stainless steel elements. The material is 100 percent recyclable. It also doesn't require surface coatings, which may end up deteriorating and probably pollute the environment.

Alloying elements – Stainless steel comprises nickel and chromium, which are mined and refined under the environmental considerations outlined by the Nickel Development Institute and Chromium Development Association, respectively.

Energy – The raw materials for stainless steel are usually melted using electric furnaces with advanced computer controls that ensure efficiency in electricity use. Most manufacturers contract with utility companies to level power consumption when there's a high demand or to rely on off-peak power.

Slag – This byproduct comes from the melting at the electric furnace. Manufacturers collect it then reclaim the metals inside it. The aggregate undergoes production for reuse or to be supplied for other uses like roadbed material.

Water consumption – During steel manufacturing, water is mainly used for cooling during non-contact cooling processes. Most manufacturers recycle this water up to 100 times before finally discharging it.

Pollution Prevention

After continuous recycling, the plant water first undergoes treatment before being discharged. Different production levels generate wastewater. All these are treated and reused as many times as possible using advanced filtration and clarification equipment.

Minimization of Wastes

Companies in the stainless steel industry are keen on keeping wastes as minimal as possible. They collect and segregate any product pieces that are usually discarded during manufacturing. All this in-house scrap will be later melted in the electric furnace. The packaging used mostly comprises steel bands, wrapping paper, or wood cradles. All these can be recycled, hence a significant cut on waste generation.


As already mentioned, stainless steel is 100 percent recyclable, and their value still stands even after they've been used as consumer products or capital goods for quite some time. Products such as fasteners, automotive systems, and aircraft parts can be fully recycled.

The durability of these products significantly contributes to the minimization of resources. Since there's no product failure or corrosion, there's no need to acquire new replacement resources. Across the globe, metal scrap dealers collect this metal then send it back for melting to produce a new set of products. The metal’s high scrap value and recyclability ensures that it is diverted from landfills and recaptured for use in new stainless steel. The quality of recycled stainless is usually the same as the original, and the value never downgrades, as evident in numerous other recycled materials.

Different scrap metal sorted into appropriate bins for proper recycling

Processes at Ulbrich

Ulbrich, like almost all manufacturers, always has scrap metal. When steel coil is slit there are usually remaining cuts or snips of stainless steel that need to be disposed of. Ulbrich Specialty Strip Mill does not use a scrap yard, but rather sorts our different scrap stainless steel and other scrap metal, such as aluminum, titanium or copper into the appropriate bins that are picked up by companies that return these remaining sheets and coils to the melt mills. From here, it is re-used as and mixed in with the base metal or virgin metal that has never been used before. The material then goes back to steel mills and into production and cold rolling processes to become stainless steel strip or stainless steel wire again in the future.

To further avoid harm to the environment and operators, Ulbrich does not have a pickling or annealing line to clean the material. Ulbrich’s role in preserving the environment and maintaining high standards for such is an ongoing effort, and the commitment to environmental responsibility has been proven by earning the ISO 14001:2015 certification.

Key Takeaway

Most people associate stainless steel with heavy-duty applications like vehicle exteriors. This leads to an involuntary assumption that the metal's manufacturing process and its use negatively impact the environment. While it may be hard to conceptualize the idea, stainless steel is the ultimate green raw material that can enhance the fight against the climate change juggernaut.

The production process is entirely environmentally friendly, and the final product is durable and corrosion-resistant. This limits the need for manufacturing new material, hence facilitating your company's sustainability goals.

The best way to contribute to the world's sustainability goals is to acquire stainless steel products created from unique rolling processes. If you are looking for durable, tailored stainless steel appliances, feel free to contact us today.

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