Many economists expect President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum to increase what American companies and consumers pay for those metals and the goods made from them. Dozens of companies have already said they will have to fire workers or even go out of business. And, as the retaliatory tariffs Canada, Japan, Mexico and other countries have announced underscore, the U.S. is heading for a trade war with the nation’s closest allies.
But having spent the last eight years researching how to make the steel and aluminum industries more efficient, I believe it’s possible for the U.S. to slash imports of these metals not by imposing duties but by boosting the reuse and recycling of old metal products.
The US market
While this may sound like an impressive amount of recycling, I believe much more of America’s scrap metal could be recycled domestically. Researchers estimate that only around 65 percent of old U.S. steel products and between 40 and 65 percent of discarded American aluminum products are collected for recycling. The rest of that metal ends up in landfills.
Trade deficits and surpluses
Even though the U.S. exports and throws away tons of cheap scrap metal, America imports expensive new metals. It exported 11 million metric tons of new steel and imported 36 million metric tons of it in 2017 – running a 25 million metric ton trade deficit.
The Trump administration has deemed this valuable imported metal to be excessive and a threat to American jobs and national security. Those concerns are what led to its decision to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
This is because so many Americans already have all the cars, stoves, washing machines, offices and infrastructure a society could need at a time when the U.S. population isn’t growing much. The average per capita ownership of metal in the U.S. has remained flat for nearly half a century at around 13 tons.
Providing replacements for old cars and demolished buildings by reusing and recycling steel and aluminum is much more environmentally friendly than making metal from ore. Mining iron ore and bauxite, the naturally occurring mineral containing aluminum, destroys habitats and endangers plant and animal life.
Making steel from ore requires making iron first using coke, a high-carbon fuel made by baking coal at over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Coke removes oxygen from the iron oxide in the ore, producing iron but inevitably creating carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas then released to the atmosphere.
Between the bauxite mining, refining, smelting and casting processes, the aluminum industry is among the world’s most energy-intensive. Despite some promising technological breakthroughs, the simplest way to make this flexible, durable and strong metal with less power and fewer emissions is by recycling the metal.
So recyclers will try to separate discarded old products into piles of different metals before adding any to their furnaces. For example, they shred old cars into small pieces with large mechanical shears before ferreting out the steel they want to recycle with magnets.
I believe that increased federal support for metal recycling, such as funding research that would facilitate better scrap metal refining and low-interest loans or tax breaks for recyclers investing in the latest sorting and refining technology, would cost Americans far less than the potential consequences of the new tariffs. It would also slash new steel and aluminum imports while reducing pollution.