Nearly every industry today is pursuing sustainability initiatives in an effort to preserve the world around us, be responsible corporate citizens, and meet the public demand to do so. The steel industry is no different. According to the World Steel Association, “steel products are vital to meet society’s needs, and as producers of steel, it is our role to meet the demand for steel in a responsible way.”
Steel has the advantage of being infinitely recycled without losing its core properties. It also tends to be used in structures, equipment, applications and buildings that have long lifespans. Both of these factors, along with others, gives the steel industry an advantage over other more disposable, less recyclable raw materials.
Moving Toward a Cyclical Economy
Ideally, all sustainability efforts within industry focus on four stages of a material’s overall lifecycle: reduce, reuse, remanufacturer, and recycle.
In the first stage, initiatives are focused on reducing the amount of raw materials required to produce steel in the first place, including energy, and innovations that help make lighter, stronger steel for various applications. Helping companies efficiently source and access the type and amount of steel needed for specific products is also critical.
Anytime items can be reused without significantly changing their form contributes to overall sustainability within the industry. This can include actions such as buying and selling equipment, repairing an asset, or repurposing a machine or building.
Remanufacturing durable steel products is the third stage within this cyclical economy and may involve rebuilding or restoring a piece of equipment to like new condition. The final stage is recycling steel products, which requires disassembly and melting steel down to its core properties in order to create a completely new steel material.
Reducing Steel’s Carbon Footprint
According to the World Steel Association, 1.85 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) were emitted for every tonne of steel produced in 2018, which generates between 7% and 9% of direct emissions from the global use of fossil fuel. Although CO2 emissions has been an industry focus for decades, it comes with special challenges in the steel industry.
First, global steel production has more than doubled since the turn of the century, primarily due to growth in developing countries, according to a report in Global Efficiency Intelligence. A particular country’s carbon footprint is significantly affected by whether they use electric arc furnace (EAF) steel production or blast furnace–basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF) production as well as how much scrap-base production is performed.
According to a study by Global Efficiency Intelligence, which was supported by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation, Italy and Spain had the lowest CO2 emissions while China had the highest. The United States had the fourth lowest level of emissions related to steel production.
Second, because the industry has made significant strides during the last 50 years, there are limited opportunities to continue based on existing technology and systems. According to the World Steel Association, the industry has reduced its energy consumption per tonne of steel produced by 61% and has also found ways to successfully capture and use waste energies already.
And, third, existing policies and standards can be improved to better support future CO2 reduction opportunities. For example, steel recycling is limited by the long life of end products such as heavy equipment or buildings. However, up to half of the steel scrap today is generated within the manufacturing process for consumer goods. Better policy can capture that opportunity.
In addition, the World Steel Association notes that blast furnace slag, which is a byproduct of producing steel, can be used by the cement industry to reduce that industry’s CO2 emissions significantly. Industry standards can be changed so these materials are better recognized and appreciated by other industries with sustainability goals.
Addressing Supply Chain Sustainability
Efficiencies along the supply chain can help improve the sustainability of the steel industry as well. New innovations and technologies can help strengthen and improve the application for steel materials.
“Along the value chain in the steel industry, raw materials will undergo different mechanical and chemical processes such as forging and welding,” writes Diane de Beaudrap in Steel Available. “The surface, strength, chemical composition, temperature, and so forth will be inspected and monitored. Sensors and cloud computing can then be a starting point for manufacturers to go digital.”
As players across the steel supply chain work to increase overall transparency in terms of price and supply, companies can do a better job of allocating production resources. Integration improves efficiency and profitability as well as affects sustainability and better use of resources.
Life Cycle Analysis
The World Steel Association has developed a life cycle model that includes social, economic and environmental components, blended together to address overall sustainability. In order to understand the impact that an end-product made from steel has on the environment, businesses need to consider every step within its life cycle.
This model begins by looking at the initial resources, energy and emissions involved in producing steel in the first place. It then examines the initial use, including the return of pre-consumer scrap. Once the finished product is released, the life cycle model considers its entire useful life, including reuse and re-purposing stages. Once the product reaches the end of its life, the model examines the resources it takes to disassemble and recycle steel components so they can begin the cycle again.
In 1996, the organization began a life cycle inventory study, which has been expanded each year. The 2019 study reports that it includes more than 99% of steel technologies worldwide and covers over 20% (364 million tonnes) of the steel production by company on a global basis. It is a comprehensive report that starts with raw materials at the beginning of the steel life cycle through to its final disposal.
The study looked at 24 separate steelmaking process steps including coke making, hot strip mill, and rebar, to name a few. The four categories the study examined were global warming potential, acidification potential, eutrophication potential and photochemical oxidant creation potential.
Organizations can use the results of this study to compare and contrast different steel materials in terms of sustainability and their overall effect on resources and the environment and make material decisions accordingly.
As companies operating in the steel industry move forward, sustainability will continue to be a key driving factor in overall profitability as well as public image. Understanding the different components of sustainability within the industry as a whole can help you find ways to make changes in your own organization in terms of how you source, purchase, use, reuse, remanufacture, or recycle this critical material.