How to Recycle Metals

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on January 23, 2023
4 min read

When thinking of recycling, you most likely think of paper and plastic — two of the most commonly recycled items. Although many people assume that recycling paper and plastic is enough to help the environment, recycling metals and other materials can improve not only the health of the environment but human health as well.

Besides the obvious impacts of not recycling, such as landfills filling up faster, the increased emission of greenhouse gasses, and an accumulation of waste, trashing instead of recycling results in: 

Several types of metals can and should be recycled. Unfortunately, many metallic products are thrown out. In the United States alone, 100 million tin and steel cans are used daily, but many of these cans are disposed of without consideration for recycling.

Staying up to date on how to recycle every eligible material is often confusing. When it comes to metals, however, the more you understand the different types and their uses, the more you will understand how to recycle them.

Metals are materials mined from rocks and ores. Once extracted from the mines, metals are ground and smelted into usable material. The processes involved from mining to producing a final product require a lot of energy. For example, to create 1 ton of the finished product aluminum, 8 tons of bauxite rick must be mined, ground, and smelted.

There are many types of metals, with the most common types including:

  • Aluminum: Aluminium is an abundant metal found throughout Earth's crust, often with other elements, including fluorine, oxygen, and silicon. In metal form, it's obtained from minerals containing aluminum. It can sometimes be found dissolved in water, but only in small amounts. It's a lightweight, silvery-white metal that can be used to craft drinking cans, kitchen items such as pots and pans, siding and roofing, foil, and more. Aluminium can have many other uses, too, including treating water and supplementing furnace linings.
  • Chromium: Chromium can naturally be found in rocks, plants, soil, volcanic dust and gases, and even in animals. Chromium has no color or taste. It can be found naturally in the environment and is a vital nutrient. Chromium is used to make steel and chrome plating and can be used for leather tanning and wood preserving.
  • Copper: Copper can be found naturally in the environment. It's usually found in water, rocks, soil, and even the air. It's essential to humans, animals, and plants because it is a vital part of life. Copper is absorbed through animals and plants from eating, drinking, and breathing. It can also be found in over-the-counter supplements, though supplementing copper is rarely needed. Besides its health benefits, it's also used to make various products including wire, sheet metal, and plumbing pipes. It has also been historically used to make pennies.
  • Lead: Lead can be found in the Earth's crust, but only in small amounts. Otherwise, it's usually found throughout the environment. There are many activities that contribute to the production of lead including burning fossil fuels, manufacturing, and mining minerals. Lead can be used in various ways and is commonly used to make batteries and metal-based products. There are some health concerns with lead, but these have been addressed by reducing the use of lead-containing products such as gasoline, paints, ceramic products, and others.

Other types of metals include cadmium, iron, nickel, tin, zinc, and more.

While most metals are recyclable, there are a few exceptions. Radioactive metals and metals containing mercury or lead cannot be put in the recycling bin. Radioactive metals require special disposal processes to ensure contaminants are not leached into the environment. Mercury and lead can be recycled only via specialized recycling facilities.

You may also want to consider selling any precious metals rather than recycling them. Although these are usually recyclable, they may also be valuable. You can locate buyers of precious metals in newspapers and classified advertisements. These metals are sometimes repurposed, donated, recycled, or upcycled. 

Do note, however, that, in some places, such as Britain, it is illegal to sell and buy scrap metal. Be sure to check your local laws to confirm scrap metal regulations. 

If you are interested in how to recycle metals near you, there are a few options: 

  • Contact your local garbage company and ask about its recycling program. 
  • Search the internet for local recycling programs offered by recyclers and other businesses.
  • Go to your city’s website and see if it offers any guidance.
  • Reach out to scrap yards and ask about their recycling programs. 

Just remember to clean the products you plan on recycling to prevent contamination.

The metal recycling process can differ between municipalities and products. For example, the recycling of nonferrous metals can differ from other metal recycling. However, the following three steps are usually involved in the recycling process: 

  • Collecting: The first step begins with you. Collect your recyclable materials and figure out where to take them. You can usually find local recycling programs through your garbage collection agency. Typically, recycling companies collect your bins and take them to a processing facility.
  • Processing: At the processing facility, the metals and other recyclable materials are sorted, cleaned, and prepared to be transported to a milling or manufacturing company.
  • Repurposing: The recycled metals and other materials are made into new products at the milling or manufacturing company and are then redistributed and resold to consumers.

Recycling most metals is easy and worth the effort. Check with your local municipality to see how you can take this small step to improve the planet and promote good health for the people who live on it.