Metal Recovery

Ask Metro’s Steve Apotheker what material Portland metropolitan area residents could recycle better and you may be surprised at what he would say, ‘Hands down: we need to improve our recycling rate for metal.’ Mr. Apotheker conducted studies in 2005 that looked in curbside garbage and recycling for materials accepted in curbside recycling programs. They found that about 12% of the metals accepted as curbside recycling ended up in the recycling carts/bins. A total 88% of steel and aerosol cans, aluminum foil, and scrap metal went into the trash.

Meanwhile Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) find metal going into recycling that is destructive to their machines and dangerous for workers. Wire, tire chains, wire clothes hangers and lawn chairs continuously enter the MRFs, tangle around equipment and sometimes literally whip around in the air before machines can be shut off. The extraction of metals from the earth is destructive to land and waterways. However, metal is one of those fabulous materials that do not have to be down-cycled. The material can be melted down and recycled over and over. Because the production of new metal is so intensive, there are also significant energy savings in recycling metal. David Allaway of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says that “aluminum is basically solidified energy.”

Three messages about metal recycling

  1. A clear list of accepted metals for curbside recycling exists.
  2. There are some simple tricks to capture some of the smaller and flatter pieces.
  3. Call Metro’s Recycle Information Center at (503)234-3000 or visit Metro Find a Recycler for the local depots to recycle hard to process metal objects. 

Metals Accepted Curbside

  • Steel Cans: Cans include: aluminum, tin and steel food cans and empty, dry, metal paint cans. Rinse food cans to remove food particles. Do Not Flatten.
  • Aerosol Cans: Must be empty. Do not include plastic caps. Do not flatten or puncture cans or remove nozzles.
  • Aluminum Foil Remove food from foil. Crumple into a ball.
  • Scrap Metal Include scrap metal that is smaller than 30 inches in any direction and less than 30 pounds. Do not include metal that has plastic or food attached.

Nifty Tricks to for Metal Recycling  

Flat objects like metal jar lids and aluminum foil can easily hide under the tons of paper that passes through the region’s MRFs and end up, unwanted, at paper mills. Small or odd shaped pieces of metal like stripped screws, bent nails or small coils fall through the machinery and end up on the floor of the facilities.

There are two tricks the inspired recycler can use to help capture these materials:

  1. For Small, Odd Shaped Pieces Open steel cans so that the lid stays attached. Place cans next to your recycling center and as small bits need to be recycled, put them inside. Sometimes you have to fold the jar lids to make them fit. Once the can is full, shut the top and crimp the sides with a pair of pliers to hold it in place. A word of caution: be thoughtful about when to include this idea in your presentations. Helping enthusiastic recyclers capture these tidbits is great. But when you are presenting to a less invested crowd, such as tenants in an apartment complex who have been placing garbage in the recycle bins, it is best to stick with more basic messaging such as “when in doubt throw it out” or “no plastic bags, glass on the side.”
  2. For Clean Aluminum Foil Make an aluminum ball to ensure the flat aluminum does not hide under paper at the MRF.

What happens to metal that is sent off for recycling?

Depending on the materials, metal is processed in Oregon, Wisconsin, the Southeastern United States, Canada and Asia. Mix ed metals are shredded and then separated by magnets into ferrous and non-ferrous piles. Steel is melted at temperatures that destroy contaminants like paper labels, dried paint and ink. Aluminum is less tolerant of impurities and should not be included in recycling if it has food, plastic or other contaminants. Because aluminum is very light, it is often compressed before shipping to reduce volume. Electronics that can be plugged in, such as computers, alarm clocks, hair dryers, irons, appliances, and even electric cords all have metals that are extracted from their casings and processed for recycling.

Recycling metals can save anywhere from 75-95% of the energy it costs to make products from raw materials. The renewable material can be melted back into cans, furniture, building frames, trains, airplanes and more, then melted down and used again. To close the loop in recycling and the use of virgin source materials, it is very important to seek metal products made from recycled content.