Sustainability made from steel: The “nine lives” of steel

Sustainability made from steel: The “nine lives” of steel

All that remains of the Berlin “Palace of the republic” is scrap metal. Rusty steel beams of the former GDR construction lie about disused on the island in the Spree in the centre of Berlin. Jumbled. Unkempt. Useless. This is the view described by journalist Marcus Jauer in his article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. What one wouldn’t expect at first glance: there is a new beginning immanent in this forlorn ending. The steel begins a new life. In a new place; more than 4500km from Berlin.

Steel parts from the Palace of the republic have been reused in the 820m Burj Khalifa – one of the most iconic landmarks in Dubai. Their journey to the United Arab Emirates took them through many recycling pants in Europe and Asia. Other parts ended up in the engine block of a Volkswagen Golf. This illustrates just how fascinating it can be that steel can be recycled at nearly one hundred per cent. Today’s food tin is tomorrow’s paper clip or bobby pin, shipping container or – as mentioned – skyscraper.

Germany is one of the most important source countries for steel on the global market – not just because of its role in extraction. Germany is also ahead when it comes to steel recycling. Its continuous research and development activities around new technologies making steel production more and more sustainable and energy-efficient cement its position in the global steel industry. „When there are no barriers to international trade in clean German scrap steel, the quality of the resulting steel increases. And, above all: the less steel is produced from ore, the better it is for the climate and the environment, Andreas Schwenter explains. As President of the German Association of Steel Recycling & Waste Management Companies (BDSV), he criticises actors who set little store by recycling. „When it is cheaper for Indian or Chinese companies to produce new steel instead of reusing scrap material, it will result in detrimental effects on air quality and consumption of resources.“

Steel recycling also helps prevent emissions such as greenhouse gasses. Recycling of this kinds saves Germany more than 20 million tons of CO2 per year – that’s the same amount as produced by the city of Berlin in the same period. It also saves Germany 30 million tons of newly produced steel per year – the equivalent of about seven Eiffel Towers per day. Hence, it lowers resource consumption, because every ton of recycled steel saves the extraction of 1,5 tons of iron ore. Hans Jürgen Kerkhoff of the German Steel Federation (WV) says: „The German steel industry takes on its responsibility for climate protection.“ Due to that fact that it can be fully recycled, Kerkhoff explains, steel forms the basis of an energy-efficient, climate friendly future. 

Germany does not only export steel products around the world. It also exports its recycling, or „Urban Mining”, know-how. Scholz Recycling GmbH, one of the biggest conditioning and recycling companies in the Federal Republic, is one example of a company that offers its expertise to other countries, too. From five hundred branches in more than twenty countries, Scholz GmbH, is one of the three biggest recycling companies worldwide and contributes to CO2 savings of 130 million tons per year.

Just as sought after are German steel cutting machines and shredders. “The quality of shredders and sorting machines is constantly improving. And German plant manufacturers are leaders in the world market with high-performance machines that meet the requirements of the future,” Andreas Schwenter explains. As an example, the BDSV-President mentions innovative rotating cutters that work in combination with laser and x-ray technology to optimise the sorting process.

This kind of international exchange wasn’t always easy. Schwenter remembers how his father also worked in the steel sector: “50 years ago, my dad experienced for himself how difficult it was for this industry to operate with the many trade barriers that were in place then, even within Europe.“ That’s why he believes: „Because of ever easier logistics, it is becoming more and more important to make trade between countries even freer than it is at the moment,“ even if it isn’t always easy.

Subway turns submarine

Public transport is environmentally friendly. Without steel, it wouldn’t exist. Trains, busses and infrastructure are in large parts made of steel. This applies to the New York subway, too. There comes a point in time, however, when the question of disposal arises. While some melt down the material and reuse it, others – the people of New York, to be precise – have found a more inventive answer: they decided to sink decommissioned carriages in the sea.

Between 2001 and 2010, the Redbird Reef project took 40-year-old subway trains to the Atlantic and placed them along the American East Coast. Today they form an artificial reef. All chemicals and safety hazards have been removed.

In this refuge made of steel at the bottom of the sea, sea creatures can now find four hundred times more food than before it was created. Jeff Tinsmann, coordinator of Delaware's Artificial Reef Program , explains that the carriages particularly benefit mussels, because they cannot survive on the sandy sea floor. There are advantages for other animals, too: “Some types of fish, such as the Perch cannot swim very fast. They need a structure that provides shelter and food. Under normal circumstances, they would be unable to get away, say, from a shark, but now they can hide from it. The barren sea floor on the coast near New York has turned into a densely populated habitat – amidst the steel. – Granted: a somewhat unusual recycling method!