Steel is one of the most widely used construction materials, due to its versatility and excellent mechanical properties. It provides strength and a high loading capacity, while also having flexibility and ductility. Steel can bend without cracking and can also handle great force without sudden failure, providing more time to react during emergencies.
In addition to its beneficial properties as a construction material, steel also reduces construction waste. Once the steel manufacturing process has been completed, it can be recycled continuously without losing quality. Even when steel production consumes plenty of resources and energy, its durability minimizes the environmental impact in the long run.
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The Sustainability Benefits of Steel
When assessing sustainability, it is important to discuss all impacts caused by a product, such as environmental impact, disposal, durability, emissions, etc. Steel is made mostly of two ingredients: iron and recycled steel.
Iron is one of the most abundant elements on Earth, and recycling steel from existing buildings is relatively simple. The following are some attributes of steel that improve sustainability when it is used in the construction sector:
- Steel is 100% recyclable, and can be recycled multiple times.
- Steel conserves its physical and chemical properties, regardless of how many times it has been recycled.
- Manufacturing technology in the steel industry is very advanced, allowing a high usage of recycled content.
- Steel manufacturing consumes less energy when it uses recycled steel.
- Steel has magnetic properties, which simplifies separation from waste with magnetic cranes.
Making Steel Production More Sustainable
The steel industry has invested plenty of time and effort to enhance production methods and minimize its environmental impact. As a result, steel production has become more energy efficient over time.
- Steel produced nowadays is 40% stronger than steel from 25 years ago.
- Steel production uses 67% less energy than 35 years ago.
- Greenhouse emissions from steel manufacturing are 45% lower than 40 years ago.
- Water consumption for steel production has been lowered to 70 gallons per ton.
- Water loss has decreased to only 10%, mainly due to evaporation. Wastewater is treated and returned to the source.
- Steel by-product gases from furnaces can be reused as fuel substitute for electricity generation, of sold for power generation.
- Electric arc furnaces allow steel production from 100% scrap metal, reducing energy consumption.
The steel industry is continuously investing in manufacturing technologies that use greener fuels, resulting in a greater reduction of CO2 emissions.
Using Steel for Sustainable Construction
By itself, steel framing provides greater strength than any other construction material. It is also durable, flexible, ductile, and noncombustible. Therefore, structures made of steel have a very long lifespan, making them cost-effective and sustainable. Another benefit of steel is having the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any construction material - steel elements of a given strength will always be smaller and lighter equivalent elements of other materials. Therefore, steel reduces dead loads and the amount of material used.
In construction, steel provides other benefits such as the following:
- Steel elements are usually produced offsite, improving waste control.
- In construction and demolition sites, all steel waste can be collected and sold to recycling facilities.
- Prefabricated steel buildings can be completed very quickly, reducing labor costs.
- Less disruption for the surrounding community.
- Less pollution from heavy machinery and equipment onsite.
Steel is the most widely recycled material, surpassing paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic combined. It can be recycled multiple times without compromising strength or durability, and it can be recycled at any point of its service life, even in small scraps. The magnetic properties of steel simplify recycling, since it can be easily separated from waste. Steel by-products can also be recycled and used in concrete, fertilizers, plastics, and paints.
More than 65 million tons of steel scrap are recycled each year, saving landfill space and natural resources. One ton of recycled steel conserves 2500 pounds or iron ore, 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone.
Community and Economy
Steel manufacturing brings economic benefits to surrounding communities, which include job creation and increased tax revenue.
- Job creation for manufacturing personnel, researchers, recyclers, etc.
- The steel industry generates tax revenue for municipalities
- Steel structures can withstand natural disasters with less damage than other buildings
In a world with a growing interest in environmental sustainability, steel is the way to go for the building sector. It provides a construction material that is durable and highly recyclable. The steel industry continues to develop methods that reduce emissions during production and recycling.